‘You’ve got to stay silly’: secrets of joy from the over-70s | Life and style
Raise your heart rate
Irene Lewington, 92, London
When my husband died in 2001, it took time to find my feet again: years of caring for him had taken a toll. One day I woke up and thought, “Right, now it’s my time”: you’ve got to make the most of the time you have left. I did a computer course, tried skydiving, then gave drag racing a go. My sixtysomething son and I drive up to the courses together, then he jumps out and I take the wheel. I get such a buzz from it; I’m never happy if I cross the line at under 100mph. Nothing has gone wrong so far.
My children are pensioners themselves; they don’t need me the way they used to. I’ve no regrets about raising our family and working hard to support them – but that job is done now. If I dropped dead tomorrow, it wouldn’t change the world, so I may as well enjoy myself. While you’re still breathing, just get on with it and have some fun. I’ve still got swimming with sharks at the London Aquarium to arrange.
Do something that makes you feel sexy
Jeni Coombs, 73, Bognor Regis
I’ve been volunteering at the Age UK gym since I moved here a few years back, so didn’t think much of being asked to help oversee some new classes. When I was told they were pole fitness and burlesque lessons, I couldn’t wait. I’d never done anything like it, but I threw myself in at the deep end. I’ve been dressed as a nun, dancing on a pole on our Sister Act float at the Bognor carnival, and done a saucy festive chair dance to Santa Baby in cute velvet shorts.
For most of my life I would have been too embarrassed – worried what people might think of me. That, I’ve realised, doesn’t matter. If someone isn’t pleased you’re enjoying yourself, then that’s their problem, not yours. There’s nothing like feeling sexy to keep you young. My kids don’t say much about it, but honestly? It’s none of their business.
Kevan Gee, 75, Rugeley
The kids were worried about us at the start of lockdown, with all the talk of the over-70s being vulnerable. I sent them some videos, the first of me jumping on the sofa like a toddler; I was decorating the house one day, so I put on silly clothes and danced around with my paintbrush to Billy Joel’s Uptown Girl, as my wife jiggled around with a feather duster.
I worked as a supervisor at a power station for many years: humour kept the team happy on good days and stopped anyone getting dejected when critical incidents and mistakes occurred. A lighthearted approach instead of iron fist discipline keeps everyone smiling and on side. You’ve got to stay childish and silly; once you lose that, you settle into an austere and miserable old age. And it’s not only about keeping yourself happy, but the people around you, too.
Do a job you love, even if it doesn’t pay well
Janie Booth, 79, London
I was on the train home a few years ago, returning from playing a small part in an episode of Doctors. I got talking to a wealthy-looking man in his 50s. He looked miserable, and asked why I was grinning. I said how fabulous my day at work had been.
He told me he’d wanted to be a weatherman but never followed up on it because he wanted a big house with all the trimmings. I didn’t want to upset him by asking about his job, but he was as rich as anything. He hated all the jobs he’d ever done. “Darling,” I said, “you’ve done it all wrong.”
I have been an actor for 63 years and I’m very good at it. I’ve done plenty of television, films and theatre: I love playing parts of insulting brevity wherever they come. Of course, if international stardom had come knocking I’d have loved it, but I do what I do because it’s fun. I took three years out in my 50s to learn how to restore furniture because I fancied it, then went straight back to acting; just follow what you feel in your heart.
Don’t fear failure
John Starbrook, 90, Windsor
My wife laughed at me in 1983 when I told her I was going up to London to register for the marathon. I’d never considered running before, but heard on the radio that the deadline was that afternoon, and on a whim thought, why not? It felt like such an achievement when I crossed the finish line, but I was exhausted and swore I’d never do it again. To this day, I’ve completed 32 London marathons, and 52 in total. I was the oldest person competing last time.
If you try something and fail, it’s still better than not trying. I never thought I’d finish my first marathon, and could have not bothered to take the punt. Jumping in head-first set me on a course for the rest of my life. Now I ask people what their dreams are, and keep them motivated. My greatest pleasure is twisting the arms of people who think something like running or swimming isn’t for them, and then seeing them finish their first triathlon with a massive smile. I don’t want people to look at me and think I’m impressive. Just see what I do and think, well, if that old fella can do it, I can, too.
David Cook, 79, Gloucestershire
I had a strange childhood: my father was a banker in Australia and our family was travelling by boat to his new posting when we were captured by the Germans and taken to Japan. My mother, father, older sister and I were held as prisoners of war until 1945. My challenge was to face that, and find a future that was better. I came to faith in my late teens.
As a clergyman, I’ve seen every form of suffering. I could easily have become an atheist: I’ve dealt with everything from suicides to car accidents, cancer, divorce and murder. I’ve learned that it’s how you face these things, then learn from them, that counts. Don’t avoid people who are suffering; reach out to them, take their pain and enter into it. Listen, so you feel it yourself, then, with their permission, offer guidance: don’t bury or deny suffering, embrace it; its power will quickly be diminished and you’ll grow from it when you do. Make sure they are surrounded by loved ones to support them, whether they’re weeping, consumed by anger or searching for joy. Remember, these feelings won’t dissipate quickly – make sure they know you’re in with them for the long haul. Of course, I’d tell them the church is here, too.
Make a difference
Hazel Mason, 71, London
I was aware of climate change before I joined Extinction Rebellion, but I’m no politician or scientist; I just assumed that at some point powerful people would take the lead. But when I heard on the radio that Donald Trump was pulling out of the Paris climate agreement, it became obvious to me we couldn’t leave it to them.
I felt deeply that I had to do something: if I didn’t, I’d be negligent. When I look at my grandchildren, I try to imagine their futures. I won’t be here in a few decades to help them, so I asked myself: what can I do with the years I have? That’s when I founded the Extinction Rebellion grandparents’ group: I realised it’s never too late to stand up and be counted. I started off running information stalls and family activities at festivals; since then I’ve protested and been arrested, too.