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Aoife Barry 'I can't believe I fell for the idea that to age is to diminish'

The journalist and writer says stories from her elders have taught her that life doesn’t get more boring as we age.

LAST UPDATE | 21 Jun 2023

SOMETHING INTERESTING HAPPENED to me in my thirties: I realised that everything I assumed about ageing and ‘older people’ was wrong.

This realisation was humbling. I thought I was open-minded! How could I have been so wrong about this?

I’d been subconsciously picking up the cultural messages about age, and believed them: 40 is the big one when you start ‘getting on a bit’. 50? Retirement beckons! 60? Better prepare for infirmity. The great expanse of Old Age that lies beyond that? Don’t even think about it.

But when I hit my late 30s, I realised that I really didn’t feel a ‘certain age’. I just felt like myself. Hold on, I thought – does this mean when I’m 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, I’ll feel that way too? And if so, does that mean I can age but also hang on to the things that excite and inspire me? That I won’t reach a time where I think ‘sod this’ and chuck any dreams in the fire? I realised I’d been underestimating what all of us can do at any age.

Youthful vitality

I could see why I’d found it so easy to fall for the idea that to age is to diminish. For the first few decades of your life, you feel young, vital and vibrant. The world tells you that it’s your delicious oyster.

You understand that anything is possible, and you have the energy and positivity to chase after your dreams. The years are all ahead of you, waiting to be caught and spun into exciting experiences.

But then it happens. You start getting handed challenges at a hefty rate once you move into proper adulthood. You bump up against illness, death, relationship issues, job woes. You realise that not everything is possible, that not every dream will be lived out. The excitement and possibility that life had in your teens and twenties develop a patina of disappointment.

When this mixes with the traditional ways of thinking about age, it means in your younger decades it’s easy to convince yourself that each decade will promise you less, rather than more. That presumption can stick with you, affecting the choices you make as you get older.

It’s not necessarily our fault that we might think like this. Look at all the signs around us prizing youth: the praise for celebrities who ‘don’t seem to age’; the 30 under 30 lists; the awards that only exist for writers under 40, as if once you get over 40 you stop being creative; the pressures to erase all signs of ageing, even if you’re totally fine with wrinkles and grey hair.

While it’s nice to have power over how we appear as we age – and I certainly wouldn’t tell people how they should or shouldn’t look – we can’t deny that to hold onto youth in any way feels like winning a particularly big prize. It feels like you’re still in grasping distance of that easier, more bountiful life you were once promised. If you believe that to age is to lose something, hanging on to any semblance of youth feels good.

Older people’s stories

These days, we live longer than previous generations. The average Irish man lives until he’s 80 and the average Irish woman until she’s 84. So if you’re 40, you still have decades to go if you are lucky (though sadly, we all know that’s not a guarantee).

I know I feel happy when people tell me I look younger than my age. I also know that soon I will no longer be told that. Inside me, there must be a fear that to be advancing in age is to be letting go of something, some sense of possibility. And yet inside, I feel the same as ever.

Now that I’ve recognised that, I also recognise that it’s easy to infantilise older people a bit. It’s a collective thing, thinking that people ‘of a certain age’ don’t have the same interests or desires as the young. No wonder we’re afraid of getting older.

It’s only when you reach those ages that you realise how wrong you were. To make me interrogate this further, I’ve started reading and listening more to stories from people who are decades older than me.

One brilliant source is the newsletter Oldster, run by Sari Botton. It’s full of interviews with people aged from their 50s upwards about everything to do with ageing (not just the good stuff, but the difficult and revelatory stuff too, like menopause).

And it turns out that many of these interviewees are living lives that are much more exciting and interesting than mine.

In a recent interview on Oldster, 85-year-old Elaine Soloway (mother of Transparent creator Joey Soloway) talked about learning to swim aged 80 – and the tattoo she got to memorialise it. In another issue, Anna Graham Hunter (55) wrote about joining Tinder after her divorce, and all the many young, gorgeous men she’s had steamy hook-ups with thanks to the app.

Reading these fascinating stories, and listening to podcasts like Wiser Than Me, where Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Elaine in the sitcom Seinfeld) – who’s in her 60s – interviews women decades older than her, shows me that there are always exciting possibilities ahead.

These stories challenge any preconceived notions we have about how to live life as we age, and about the latent limits both we and greater society can place on us. Maybe your version of being 80 involves piercings and hiking – or maybe your version of 35 means learning to crochet and going to pottery classes. If you’re pursuing what interests and excites you, who cares what age you are?

We will all face significant challenges and roadblocks as we meander through life. Some of us will have ‘smaller’ or shorter lives than others. But we don’t have to let the date on our birth certificate prevent us from having goals that exhilarate us.

Should we give up on new experiences just because of the year we were born? Thanks to listening to stories from people older than me, I know the answer to that one. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to practice my crochet.

Aoife Barry is a journalist and author.


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