Brand building through storytelling

So this is what 60 feels like

When I was a hesitant 29, faking poise with a sale-rack suit and a new leather briefcase, I used to wonder, “How old is grown up?” I hoped to cross that threshold at 30, but my birthday flew by in a barrage of errands and projects. I noticed one change: a longer to-do list. I still hadn’t claimed that era’s trophies of success, a secretary and a Dictaphone. I still lived in a house with no living room furniture. So why all the hype about turning 30?

For the better part of three decades, I’ve been shrugging off milestone birthdays. Forty: eclipsed by my mother’s death two weeks earlier. Fifty: an excuse to squeeze a girlfriends’ lunch between my morning and afternoon meetings. Then last October I turned 60. I marked the day with my first birthday bash since primary school, but I hated to leave my fifties. Oh, what a glorious decade – like the forties, with more confidence and savvy. Let me tell you, there’s nothing familiar about 60.

“Age is just a number,” people say. I’ve probably said it myself. But at 60 I am now twice 30 – the age at which, in the parlance of my flower-power youth, a person can no longer be trusted. At 60, I wonder if I can trust myself to navigate the years ahead with the same emotional tool kit that had seen me through my rapidly dwindling middle age. I face a perplexing, even shocking new question: “How old is old?” Emotionally speaking, this latest birthday has flipped me upside down, swung me by the feet in a stiff wind and deposited me back on terra firma unsure just where I’m bound.

At least I’m in glamorous company: Meryl Streep and Twiggy, also 60 this year, and Helen Mirren, at 64, are putting the sex appeal in sexagenarian. Looking at their life-burnished faces, I’m tempted to believe the rah-rah slogan (nearly 17 million Google citations), “Sixty is the new 40!” But I know better. My bum knee and complaining shoulder won’t allow me to forget. Sixty is the boundary between thinking I have forever to do my growing up, and accepting the fact that I don’t.

You might think I’d be a full-fledged adult at this advanced age, but I haven’t quite lost the goofiness of girlhood. I still reach for the wrong fork at the occasional candlelit table, still replay awkward conversations and realize too late what I should have said. I still walk down busy streets smiling at my own private jokes, while passersby wonder what’s got into me.

Without even trying, I’ve recaptured a young person’s sense of doors about to swing open on discoveries that could change my life. But it’s not the same anticipation of my youth. Back then, the adventure was about finding someone: a partner to love me or a mentor to groom me for promotion. Now it’s all about finding the newly unencumbered me. I no longer have a son to raise, a mortgage to pay or a demanding boss to impress. This has been so ever since I quit my job at 55, but there’s something about being 60 that compels me to reflect on my life as if it were a treasure I could hold in my hand and examine from every angle. The first thing I see is this: My days belong to me. And they won’t stretch on forever, like childhood summer vacations. I’ve acquired an elder’s sense of time, in which decades speed up as if on fast-forward.

Forty seems, if not quite yesterday, then no more than a few birthdays ago. I still remember every detail of the home we sold when I was 40. I can feel the warmth of the polished oak banister under my hand. But here I am at the midpoint between 40 and – can it be? – 80. No question, 80 is old. Old enough to worry that your next “home” might have a logo and a brochure that delicately promises “care when you need it.”

On a good day, seen from afar, I don’t look all that different from the 40-year-old me. I can still wear tight jeans and sleeveless tops. I take offense at fashion stories on “dressing for your age” (ever notice how the 60-something gets the least appealing outfits?).Not so long ago a younger man addressed me as “babe.” I wasn’t 60 then, or even 59, but I’ve hardly changed, honest. I’ve been eating broccoli and oily-meated fish, sweating up a storm in Pilates class, wearing full-strength sunscreen even on the darkest winter days…doing everything I can, short of surgery, to keep the spring in my step and the wrinkles off my face. In short, I’ve thought of aging as a manageable process, the cruise control of my later decades – as if, with the right preventive measures, I could coast along the highway of life, smooth-cheeked and taut-bellied, never reaching the dread endpoint, old.

I look at photos of my grandmother at my age or younger and am struck by how ancient she seemed in her prim shawl-collared dresses and orthopedic shoes. Every night she put her teeth in a glass and gave her face a good rubdown with Noxzema from an economy-size jar. How she’d scoff at what I’ve spent on skin care products sold only by white-coated estheticians, when I could be saving up for my grandkids’ education. I feel blessed to have the means and the self-assurance to put myself first from time to time, as Grandma never could. Yet her generation faced a truth we’ve willed ourselves to deny: No matter how buff you look at 60, you are headed for one of two fates. You’ll either die too soon or you’ll grow old.

Perhaps I ought to feel grateful for reaching this age. Five of my friends, all stricken with cancer, didn’t live to be 60. The first died in her mid-forties – a shocking fluke, it seemed at the time. Women our age were supposed to be hiking in the Rockies, going back to school, landing our dream jobs and generally becoming our most fulfilled, accomplished selves. Now scarcely a month goes by when I don’t hear of a contemporary stricken with a life-threatening illness, or felled by one. Such news never fails to unnerve me, no matter how slightly I knew the former colleague whose death notice I’ve just read. The shocker isn’t that I could be next (an unwelcome prospect, no question) but that time is already dismantling and rebuilding the world as I have known it.

I’m not ready for this. I don’t want to be unsexed and unnoticed, as old women are in a culture obsessed with youth. I take it personally when unemployed age mates of mine can’t even land an interview, much less a job, because they have “too much experience.” I cringe at predictions that addled, tottering, disease-ridden baby boomers will soon bankrupt the health care system. Hey, pundits! You’re talking about me and my friends! Only yesterday, we defined the promise of the future. And now you’ve recast us as the problem?

Way back around my 30th birthday, I drew strength from stories of women achievers, a little older and a lot bolder than I as they forged careers in what had been a man’s world. At 60, I look for a different brand of female boldness – the courage to be fully oneself. My current heroine, the British memoirist Diana Athill, was in her 70s when she published her first book and has just released another at 91. “When you are young a great deal of what you are is created by how you are seen by others, and this often continues to be true into middle age,” she writes in Somewhere Towards the End. “…But once you are old you are beyond all that.”

Athill is wonderfully frank about the diminutions of old age – -sore feet, for example. Speaking about one of her last lovers, she observes that “[sharing] painful feet was almost as important as liking sex, because when you start feeling your age it is comforting to be with someone in the same condition.” She has since lost all interest in sex, which perhaps is just as well since she’s tethered to a cranky, bed-ridden partner whose demands never end. But that’s my judgment, not hers. What inspires me about Athill is the pure delight she finds in new pleasures and accomplishments (her dog, her drawing class and above all her writing) that continue to expand the boundaries of her life. On top of all this, she has answered the question on my mind: How old is old? Seventy-one, says Athill, with an elder’s penchant for emphatic declarations. If she’s right, I have 11 more years “within hailing distance of middle age, not safe on its shores, perhaps, but navigating its coastal waters.”

Oh, well. I’ve decided I don’t give a damn how old is old. You can call my stage of life whatever you want; I’ll call it the wisdom years. I’ve earned the right. Maybe somewhere along the way I will finally grow up.

Click here to read “Diana Athill’s guide to old age.”

First published in More (Canadian edition), May 2010.

Previously posted comments:

May 27, 2010 at 5:05PM

I’m only in my 40s–early 40s at that–but have often wondered the same thing about when real adulthood really kicks in. Of course, my mother’s always said I’ve been an adult since I was about 3, sooo….. Happy, happy birthday!

Rona Maynard
May 28, 2010 at 5:05 AM

Thanks, Deb. Wait till you reach your 50s. What an exciting and excited more-or-less-grown-up person you’ll be then.

May 28, 2010 at 5:05AM

I have three years left in my fifties so imagine how relieved I am to have you bravely, publicly, forging the path ahead.

Honestly? I keep thinking if I E V E R quit getting zits then I’ll consider myself all grown up. In the meantime, since the facial flare ups haven’t stopped even though the monthly periods have, I guess I’ll just keep growing out rather than growing up.

Rona Maynard
May 28, 2010 at 6:06 AM

I loved your line about the zits. Still get a few of those myself.

Maxine Charlesworth
May 28, 2010 at 5:05AM

In your sixties, you still can feel “somewhere in between” rather than “somewhere towards the end” despite corporal reminders that time is undeniably passing by. It is important to keep yourself “fresh” by being receptive to new knowledge each and every day. By knowledge I don’t just mean news of the day and factoids but the learning that comes from looking, listening and striving to understand the world around us and all in it. Maybe this is why many of us feel wiser as the years go by. Truth or delusion, I don’t know, but it gives you a sense of satisfaction to feel that you finally are figuring things out. Aging gives you the opportunity, the time, to do this. Is this what is meant by the “gift of time”?

Rona Maynard
May 28, 2010 at 6:06 AM

Good point, Maxine. I do feel wiser—although it seems tha new another one waiting around life’s next corner. As for staying fresh, this is why I now look for a new breed of role model: vibrant, curious women who are undeniably old and not about to pretend otherwise. More on that subject in a day or two…

Bolaji Williams
May 28, 2010 at 6:06AM

Dear Ms Maynard:

This is PERFECT! So perfect in fact, that I am going to print it out and post it to my fridge the same way my Mother used to post Ann Landers articles to our fridge growing up. I’m nowhere near 60 [or 50], in fact I often am mistaken for being 10 years younger than my actual age. Not that it “matters.”

At one point I used to be ‘flattered’ that people thought I appeared younger than my actual age, and then I became self-conscious thinking that it meant that they thought I was immature. Which, in many cases, is not altogether untrue. I love your line about not having “quite lost the goofiness of girlhood” and for me this speaks volumes. Why should we?

I think your voice is a good strong voice in a climate obsessed with shallow thinking/appearances, and while 60 is not “old” by any means–my own mother will be 80 soon and I still do a double-take when I see her– I think it’s important to take our social cues on aging from as diverse a segment of the populatoin as possible, particularly from fabulous women such as yourself who not only examine the lives and situations of others, but who are self-less enough to offer up their own lives for public examination. It can’t be easy!

My new favourite word is “nuanced.” You used it in one of your Twitter posts recently, and I too have used it often to describe a piece of writing that I find inspiring. I think that “nuanced” has your name written all over it. I have thought this for quite some time. I think this is true because your words, phrases, and sentences breathe. You are in no rush to hammer your points at your reader, rather, you give them time to injest and ruminate over what they have just read. Delightful! Thank you, mille fois!


Rona Maynard
May 28, 2010 at 6:06 AM

And a big thank you to you too, Bolaji. Words come slowly some days. I’ll keep your encouraging words in mind as I sit down to finish my next post.

Susan Jones
May 28, 2010 at 2:02PM

A couple of weeks ago, while on recess duty, I would have given my eye teeth to show the kids how to run into the double dutch rope and jump properly. Not having done it for forty-five years, I decided not to make a fool of myself (a function of my personality rather than age). In my heart of hearts I am a twelve year old, albeit not a modern day twelve year old – old enough to read adult books but young enough to skip and play with dolls. I’m often shocked when I look in a mirror because that is not the way I feel. While it shouldn’t matter what others think, I do find my age makes younger people uneasy until they get to know me and realize that I am really just in the wrong packaging. Thanks for taking me there, Rona.

Rona Maynard
May 28, 2010 at 2:02 PM

“Old enough to ead adult books but young enough to skip and play with dolls”…sounds like a perfectly splendid age to me. Welcome back, Sue.

Francesca Thomas
October 27, 2013 at 2:02PM

I am 49 years old but my face doesn’t show it, although my grey hair does. I am dreading turning 50 next year, but I don’t feel old. You wanna know why? Most women in their 50’s have raised the kids and are now on their own with the kids having left home. I’m lucky. I hope my son will still be with me for the next 10 years – until I turn 60 at least,

My son keeps me young and on my toes. Why?
Because he wasn’t born until I was 38 years old. So next year when I turn 50, he will be 12 years old. And if he does go to University, I hope to have him at home until he graduates at age 22 when I turn 60. Only then will I turn him loose into the world.

Rona Maynard
October 27, 2013 at 3:03 PM

There’s no longer one right rhythm to a woman’s life, is there? When I was 49, I already had a grandchild. Yet here you are at 49, with a son still in the nest and likely to remain there for a good while yet. You’re one of so many women who embarked on parenthood at ages once considered old. No more.

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