Written by Judith Holder

Voices

Grey Pride

In the first episode of her new monthly column about ageing, Judith Holder talks becoming officially old – turning 60.

Illustrations by Harriet Carmichael.

Illustrations by Harriet Carmichael.

I’ve just turned 60 which means I am now officially ‘old’. I don’t feel 60, I don’t even feel particularly grown up, but my claims to the term ‘middle aged’ are now beginning to sound naive, even laughable.

Like all baby boomers who like to think we invented sex and drugs and rock and roll, getting old was never going to happen to me. We decided “we’d rather die than grow old” and some of us are even proclaiming “we don’t do old”, like we have a choice.

But like it or not, time is catching up with us. Suddenly, I can feel a slight change in people’s attitudes to me: if I tell someone I’m joining the community choir or the local ukulele group (both more or less compulsory for the over-50s) people say “Good for you!” in that way they do to old people, like I’m bucking a trend, or needed a great big pat on the back for still being in the land of the living. Younger people obviously think I’m getting old, but I’m finding it hard to come to grips with.

This late middle age or early old age doesn’t even have a name, it’s a no man’s land. There’s no role model that works anymore because we’ve all decided we’re not going to age like our parents did.

Everywhere I look, the over 50s are behaving more like teenagers than old farts. They’re divorcing, getting STDs, trekking the Himalayas or dyeing their hair bright pink – like a pack of adolescents but with more liver spots and the occasional need for a nice sit down. Is there a grey revolution under way? Or is it just that oldness is suddenly on my radar and, just as policeman start to look about 12 when you are in your 30s, old people start to look younger the older you get?

I’ve been mining a seam of comedy based on growing older for 10 years with the Grumpy Old Women franchise for BBC Two, and writing the stage shows with Jenny Eclair. Now it is time to figure out where all this new-found grey attitude might be heading.

We’re ageing more slowly and we have a longer middle age to tick off bucket lists and jump into bed with new partners but, despite this apparent new life phase of vibrant frolicking, one thing isn’t changing: we are all heading into the land of stair rails and walk-in baths eventually. It might happen to me later than my parents, or grandparents, but I am on borrowed time nonetheless.

“The one thing I am sure of is that we need to reinvent our old age, to reclaim it, rename it, reboot it in a way that shifts the prejudice and denial around it.”

Yet, it strikes me that none of us were using our late middle age to prepare for old age – and the more we ignore it, and the more ‘young’ we continued to behave, the more hideous the inevitable fall would be. We’re like lemmings all approaching a cliff edge and the view over the top is not a pretty one, but none of us seemed to have the appetite for taking a good look ahead and finding a parachute.

Worse still, we’re less well prepared for old age than any generation before us. The boomers and the generation of oldies coming behind us have huge expectations about our rights as elders. I predict we will not be satisfied with a life limited to the odd coach trip and a retirement home with afternoons in front of Countdown. We’re the ‘me’ generation, used to having our own way and expressing our own identities and rewriting the rulebook.

researching in the BodleianAs self-appointed head girl of the tribe Grumpy Old Women, I decided I should find out more about this process of growing old. I did something radical, scary and a little bit bonkers. I went to Oxford University to study old age.

I sat in the Bodleian Library with properly clever people half my age (actually make that a third), puzzled over government reports and academic papers, met some of the most eminent experts in ageing in the world, went to formal dinners, watched debates, and prepared for my weekly sessions with the Professor – a process I found fantastically stimulating, scary, puzzling and dull in about equal measure. Simultaneously, as it happens, the children left home, and I downsized and moved down South. Everything was forcing me to think about the next big phase of my life – whatever the hell I am going to call it.

I can’t pretend my conclusions are going to change the world, but the one thing I am sure of is that we need to reinvent our old age, to reclaim it, rename it, reboot it in a way that shifts the prejudice and denial around it.

We need to get to a place where we’re proud of old, we flaunt old, we celebrate old rather than consign it to the rubbish bin; we need to decide what our manifesto for change is.

And Grey Pride the manifesto’s change number one is: don’t underestimate old people.

www.judithholder.com

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Written by Judith Holder

Producer/writer of the BBC Two series Grumpy Old Women and the spin off books, and co-writer with Jenny Eclair of the three stage shows which have been international hits.