Understanding how to grow old gracefully is the eternal question. In reality, the concept has a different meaning for every individual. But we can largely agree that embracing who we are and how our bodies may be changing can only be a good thing.
When I saw Sharon Stone on the cover of a magazine, bare-breasted and wearing a leather corset with high heels, declaring, ‘I’m 50 – so what?’ I felt something between jubilation and alarm,’ says Mel, 44. ‘Jubilation because it’s thanks to images like this that people’s attitudes change and evolve, and alarm because, in real life, what woman of her age really has such a perfect face and body?’
In real life, faces have wrinkles and 50-year-old women don’t have the bodies of supermodels.
But in our society, where everyone wants to live longer but can’t stand their bodies or faces showing signs of age, it isn’t easy to get away from the fantasy of growing old youthfully. In a world where everything is changing increasingly quickly, when it comes to ageing well, the most important goal is to feel in control. The threat of illness and financial insecurity make us anxious about ageing – we tend to see age as an obstacle to be overcome rather than as a stage in life to be enjoyed. It’s a paradox of our times – we want a wise old age full of serenity and acceptance, but this desire merely magnifies our fear of loneliness and physical decline.
And then there’s the confusion about what we really want. ‘I picture my own grandmother – her slow movements, thoughtful responses, the scent of her perfume,’ says Barbara, 50. ‘She is the image of peace, resignation, calm and reflection, but I can’t imagine myself ever becoming like that. I can’t imagine stopping running, or going to the gym, or even letting go of my professional ambitions. Is this just a failure of my imagination, or will I be a driven old woman?’ If it’s difficult to imagine what sort of person we will be when we are old, it’s worth considering this – the best things that ageing can offer us are wisdom, a better understanding of ourselves and the opportunity to focus our energy on projects that we really care about.
How to grow old gracefully
‘The cult of youth forces us to focus on our image,’ says psychoanalyst Catherine Bergeret-Amselek. ‘But it’s only by opening ourselves up to change that we really feel alive. And that’s only possible if we accept the ageing process.’ Rather than fighting a losing battle to stop the passage of time, or becoming bitter, we need to find a balance. This balance is made up of a new awareness of ourselves, an active acceptance.
‘At about 40, our perception of our bodies, our image and our sexuality changes,’ says Bergeret-Amselek. ‘It’s the age where we start to think about the way our parents were when we were adolescents, and the ideas our mother passed on to us about what it means to be a woman. This process allows us to question our fears and desires – do we want to age the same way our parents did? Can we allow ourselves to live differently, to be ourselves rather than becoming the projection of what our parents wanted us to be? This focus on ourselves offers an important opportunity to resolve inner conflicts.’
At around 45, we are likely to be in a senior role at work. It’s at this point that younger colleagues, full of energy and ambition, start to knock on the door and make everything feel less secure. ‘For many women, it’s a vulnerable period,’ says psychotherapist Michael Freud. ‘But the process of starting to focus on themselves is essential. It’s important they realise that, with age, they need to create a new way of relating to themselves and others. The big discovery is that the more areas of interest we have that give us a sense of inner fulfilment, the more distance we’re able to put between ourselves and the vision of someone who’s falling apart with age.’ Freud highlights the importance of a positive relationship with our bodies: ‘Wellbeing is a state of mind, but it is also to do with the way we feel. Even if we’ve never learned to look after ourselves physically, we can begin a process of change. Some people only discover that their bodies can bring them joy when they’re past 50.’
The more the body is lived in, the more we must respect its needs – if you accept its imperfections it will be more open to desire and pleasure. ‘Women think that men only desire young women, but this isn’t the case – they’re drawn to women who are comfortable in their maturity, in their sensuality, and who love life,’ says Bergeret-Amselek. Another thing that helps the process of ageing is to be around other people and engaged with the world, which requires us to invest energy and creativity. ‘My work as fundraiser for a local gallery brings me into contact with a lot of young artists,’ says Florence, 55. ‘Whatever I think of their ideas, their enthusiasm and energy is infectious. Instead of thinking, dismissively, “Magritte was doing that a century ago”, I’ve started seeing the humour and fun in their work. They think they’re going to change the world, and why not?’
Sociologist François de Singly believes it is important to have personal projects, activities that express different aspects of our character – artistic, sporting, humanitarian or social. ‘There are endless possibilities and only one condition – the project must involve an element of competition, but mustn’t be overwhelmed by it,’ he says. Create strong bonds, pass on to others what you have learned in life, look after those who have less than you do – these are all ways to keep yourself going strong and will help you learn how to grow old gracefully. If they don’t guarantee that you stay young, they do at least mean that you continue to feel alive.