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Mellow and mature – a reflection on growing old(er)

The other day, my BFF and I shared a nice cuppa while having a bit of a moan about the fact that we are no longer bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Instead, we have odd aches, have to our shock realised we can no longer leap out of bed (our bodies protest too loudly) and have a problem with eating too much garlic. The latter can of course be considered to be a minor inconvenience, but if you love garlic bread . . .

Many years ago, my grandmother rebelled against the norms that stated an older woman had to dress just so, behave like this. She had recently lost her husband—and in hindsight it was probably a somewhat suffocating relationship as many were in an age where the women were so dependent on their husbands—and decided it was time to embrace life. She was seventy-plus and suddenly she popped up wearing jeans, with hair dyed red and a tendency to hang out with peeps that drank too much, got high too often, but were fun, according to my grandmother.

Thirty years ago, the plus sixties were encouraged to go walking, join a bridge club and go on guided bus trips. My grandmother chose to instead attend night-long parties and start listening to rock music.

Some years later, my grandmother suffered a bad accident and ended up spending the last months of her life in hospital, not entirely there. In retrospect, I am so happy she had those years when she went a bit wild and crazy. But at the time, most of her acquaintances were horrified by the fact that she refused to conform. Ladies her age were supposed to wear robust shoes, calf-length skirts and properly buttoned blouses. Their hair should be neat and never, ever red. But it could be blue. (Am I the only one with memories of older ladies in blue-toned hair?)

My mother was also the protesting type. She refused to be defined by her age and wore miniscule bikinis to the beach when she was well over sixty. Seeing as she did 40 minutes of gymnastic exercises every morning, she had the body to carry it off, but she wasn’t SUPPOSED to dress like that, was she? Not when she was OLD.

So when do we become old? Hubby likes to say that we are still middle-aged, if at the top range. Others will tell you age is only a number. True, that: I may be plus sixty, but there are days when I feel like seventeen. Most of us, I believe, think we are more or less the same person when we are fifty as when we were twenty or thirty. We do not see the changes in ourselves, bar the truly obvious ones, that we may have become better at anger management. Life, of course, has changed us. The sum of our experiences has moulded us, in some cases refining qualities that were always there, in others causing us to develop characteristics that are not innate.

Still, the essence of a person remains unchanged, doesn’t it? Anyone who has had that life-altering experience of staring into the eyes of a newborn baby knows that we arrive in this world as complete persons, albeit very vulnerable and dependent ones. This is why sometimes the name the proud parents have decided on beforehand simply doesn’t fit. That serious child who looks unblinkingly at you while gripping your finger is not a Fredrik but a David—Duh!

In this day and age, we are privileged enough to enjoy long lives. Here in Sweden, the average life expectancy is 84 years (Phew! Some decades left, peeps!).  We have no longer toiled every day since we were twelve in the fields, and as women we have not given birth to one child a year or so during our fertile years. Most of us in the Western world have not grown up hungry or cold. We’ve not had rickets or tuberculosis and most of us have been spared measles and scarlet fever and whooping cough and all those other diseases we can vaccinate against. We are, in brief, fortunate.

If we move backwards in time, life was harsh on the older people. Actually, many never got to the older part—women in particular tended to die much too young, often in childbed. It wears and tears at your body to have a child every year or so, and in times without any effective anti-contraceptive devices (beyond the not entirely reliable “pull-put” method) it was hard to avoid becoming pregnant. Besides, the Church preached sex was a sin unless engaged in to conceive. Not that I think our forefathers (and mothers) necessarily agreed with this. I believe humans have always found comfort in intimacy, even when they were not making babies.

Both men and women died of ailments like smallpox and pneumonia. A bad strep throat could kill you as could an infected wound. And men, of course, were far more likely to die fighting on behalf of their lord or king. Battlefields wounds were hard to treat, and if you survived, you might end up permanently maimed which would in turn make it difficult for you to make a living.

Add to this that our medieval random person—you know, one of the vast majority not born with a silver spoon—likely has experienced some periods of hunger during their life. They had eaten a lot of very salt food (so as to conserve it during the winter months) They did not eat tomatoes on a daily basis to avoid Alzheimer’s –but then, the majority of them never reached an age where Alzheimer’s (unknown back then, at least under that name) would ever be an issue. Our medieval random person had also worked since long before they were fully grown. Long hours carrying and lifting or doing repetitive work is not good for your body, and back in the good old days, no one had vacations. Yes, yes: they had holy days off, but in general, it was work, work, work.

In medieval times, the average life expectancy at birth (assuming you survived birth) was approximately thirty-five years. If, as a woman, you made it to twenty years, you probably had another eighteen years ahead of you. If, as a man, you crawled over twenty-five, you could well live another fifteen. And if you made it over forty, you could very well live another ten to fifteen years.

People grew old quickly. While medieval people did not suffer from cavities in their teeth to any larger extent (sugar was very, very expensive and not available to everyone), after years of eating all that porridge—usually barley—their teeth wore down. And once the teeth went, you were reduced to eating pap, which by definition meant your diet became even less nutritious.

No vitamin supplements, no magnesium pills to help with flaring ache, no medicine in general to preserve your health, so by the age of forty you not only felt old, but you looked old. Verily like Methuselah, with a bowed back and no teeth . . .

Peter Paul Rubens – Old woman with a candle

Things didn’t change much over the centuries. And in farming communities, becoming old also meant becoming a burden—at least in places like Sweden, where the average farmer toiled over fields which could—in a good year—feed himself, his wife and children plus the servants they needed to manage. But if said farmer also had to feed his old parents—too old to be of any use—things could quickly become difficult. Not that said farmer did not care for his parents, but if food was in short supply, those who actively worked or the very young had to be prioritised.

Vincent van Gogh At Eternity’s Gate

My grandparents were all born in the first decade of the 20th century. By then, life expectancy in Sweden had begun to crawl upwards to 68 for women and 65 for men. Families were smaller—a life-saver for women—and there had been major advances in medicine. But most of that life was spent working—retirement is a VERY novel concept, and by the time my great-grandparents hit sixty they were definitely old and tired. Give it thirty years more, and there was my grandmother, refusing to be defined by her age when there was still so much LIFE to enjoy.

These days, my BFF and I can slouch about in jeans, trainers and hoodies, and no one as much as raises a brow. And no, we have not dyed our hair blue. But our knees hurt (we had an exercise some days back when we knelt on the floor and tried to sit back on our heels. Did not work. As to why we did this exercise, no comment…)

We still work. We have active lives and expect to remain active for years to come. We have probably mellowed over the years, less prone to be riled (this is when my BFF rolls on the floor howling with laughter while spluttering that I still get riled. Far too easily. Ignore her. I HAVE mellowed, OK? ) and we have matured into strong independent women. Plus, of course, we are so, so lucky because we are still around to grow old!

I intend to take a page out of my grandmother’s book and live each day as the precious gift it is. No, I have no hankering for going out on night-long raves, but I will not let my age—and the expectations of others as to how I should behave due to my age—stop me from sinking my teeth into this juicy, juicy fruit that is life and suck it completely dry before—many years from now, obviously—I finally croak.

To life, peeps. To this crazy, wonderful experience on this magical little green and blue planet. Aren’t we all exceedingly lucky to be here?

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