I spent the morning at a chair yoga workshop recently, talking about the effects of ageing on the body. While I’m not quite ready to get off the mat, there were definitely pointers to share with my mum and adaptations to consider when aches and pains give me a nudge (as they do nowadays). This topic has been occupying my mind for a while now, having recently turned 60, and probably also since I lost my father a year ago. I feel keenly the passing of my parents’ generation and with that the knowledge that they had. There has been much stocktaking and organising happening in my life since that big birthday that seems to have snuck up on me. I am aware that I have far fewer years to work through that eternal to-do list and I am focusing on downsizing and simplifying so that I can focus on what is important. Sixty definitely feels like the end of a cycle. Not that I feel that I am going downhill, into decline, or any of the other very negative stereotypes that accompany ageing.
So much negativity surrounds getting old and we are constantly bombarded by media trying to convince us that we need to look younger no matter what it takes. As with all groups who are stereotyped, it leads to prejudice and marginalisation. As with other “-isms”, the way to challenge the stereotypes is to tell stories. Chimamanda Adichie says that the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only one. Here’s one story.
When I turned 50, I went back to university, completely changing track from an occupational therapist to doing a masters in creative writing and later gaining a doctorate in historical and heritage studies. Probably the biggest challenge for me to cope with was the technological advancements since I had first graduated in the mid-1980s. I remember sitting in a seminar on African non-fiction literature surrounded by 20-somethings who were fresh from their undergraduate degrees (unlike my 30-year hiatus) and feeling overwhelmed and wholly unprepared for the challenge I had set myself. I chatted to the lecturer about continuing with the course and he probably had no idea of how much his response boosted my confidence that day. He said that while the rest of the class might know so much more about literature than I did, they needed to learn that there was a wealth of knowledge in the life experience that I had.
So, in spite of the aches and pains, the “senior moments” when I can’t remember a name I should know, or clocking up steps walking from room to room trying to recall what I came for, I embraced the opportunity to learn and continue to grow. When I stepped on the stage in that red graduation gown, I felt hugely empowered and sure that I had gained a few more neural cells (probably in the technology section of my cortex!).
Of course, there are moments that cast a spotlight on the downside of growing older, like the loss of my father. My nest is empty, with my children abroad for now. But I feel privileged to straddle two generations — my mother and my daughter’s. At 80 and 29 years respectively, they both have a wealth of knowledge to share with me from two very different points of view. I consider myself lucky to have lived through some of the most turbulent times in our country and to have been around to witness the dawn of a new democracy. The empty nest makes it easier to pack up and go spend time with my children, delighting in the adults they have become. And I get to enjoy focusing on what I believe is my important work, that of starting conversations about where we come from. It took me a lifetime to get to this point and I have only just begun.
It’s very liberating to let go of old patterns and try new ones. I don’t feel the need to prove myself to anyone and while I am still trying to wrap my mind around that big round number, I have decided to embrace it and spend the year finding new reasons to celebrate (until midnight on the day before I turn 61!). One of my favourite writers, Isabel Allende, who turns 80 this year, often talks about living passionately. In a TEDtalk, she once gave, she says that the Spanish word for jubilation — la jubilación, is also the word for retirement or pension! Yes, I checked on WordHippo! So, I feel justified in celebrating and being jubilant. And if a piece on ageing is not quite what you were expecting on this platform, maybe all the more reason to start the conversation and banish those stereotypes!