Why women in their 70s are the happiest of all
Every awards season, there’s a mature actress that cuts through the swathe of giddy starlets with huge amounts of poise and self-possessed allure. For years, Charlotte Rampling and Helen Mirren ruled the red carpet as Hollywood’s sexiest elder stateswomen, and this year it’s the turn of nominee Glenn Close. Over the weekend, she looked every inch the seasoned powerhouse as she picked up her SAG Award in a crisp, classic trouser suit. She also dropped a delicious bombshell for good measure last week, insisting that she is “as sexually eager” as ever at the age of 71.
“It’s one of the great myths that you lose your sexuality as you get older,” she told The Guardian. “I feel as free and as creative, as sexual and as eager, as I ever have. And it’s ironic because I’m thinking: ‘How much time do I have left now?’
“There are so many things I’m interested in doing. It’s one of those ironies, I suppose, that we sometimes start feeling comfortable in our own skin only late in our lives, but hopefully with enough time to benefit from it.”
Close’s candid confession appears to run counter to a long-held narrative held about women in their 70s; they are sexless, doddery, vulnerable. Invisible in the world, in the media, and certainly invisible when it comes to the male gaze.
Yet research has proven what many women in that age bracket have known for years – it’s the most carefree and positive decade there is. A 2013 poll of 3,000 people saw that women aged 71-80 are happiest, rating themselves 7.76 out of 10 for feeling happy (compared to respondents aged 18-20, who rated their general happiness at 6.54). Another 2016 research project, this time by the Office for National Statistics, saw that 65-79 is the happiest age group for adults. A recent New York Times essay by writer Mary Pipher, on the joy and freedom of turning 70, rapidly went viral – clearly, the subject touches a nerve.
Many 70-something women have long raised their families, and are enjoying watching their grandchildren grow up. In retirement, they are free from the hamster wheel of the daily grind and able to indulge themselves in interests that have been sidelined for years. They are more financially secure than in years past thanks to an empty nest or downsizing, and their relationships and friendships, bolstered by decades of care and attention, provide a rich web of emotional support and care. The financial, emotional and physical insecurities of decades past are a distant memory.
Many of them are old enough to not care what anyone thinks of them, yet young enough to still be in rude health. It’s also an age bracket where, self-knowledge, emotional intelligence and empathy for others are elevated after years of practice. Better still, they have figured out what it takes most of us far too long to realise: that getting older and getting to stick around on the planet longer is a rich privilege.
Novelist and travel writer Muriel Bolger has long grabbed life with both hands, but not even a Parkinson’s diagnosis is holding her back. She started her eighth novel recently, has taken up painting, booked a solo holiday and recently spent a week at an artist’s retreat.
“Women my age do things my mother’s generation would never have done, like go on holiday or go to the cinema on their own,” she observes. “Years ago, when a woman was widowed, her ‘place’ in society was gone too. These days, you can pick your friends and be there for people with whom you have gone through illness, bereavement and family crises together. You can spend time doing what you want and indulge your hobbies.”
Bolger, then a divorcee and mother-of-three, first came to writing at 41: “I suddenly had to reinvent myself, and I fell into journalism quite by accident,” she recalls. “I was sent on a press trip to Paris and made loads of contacts. I always say I have had two lives: the mortgage and kids half, then the five-star lifestyle half.”
Ironically, the only time that 78-year-old Baltinglass native Mai Quaid had a brief crisis of confidence about age was before she turned 70. “I remember thinking, ‘I’m decrepit’,” the mother-of-three laughs. “My mother died at 69 and my father died in his 70s and I think when I passed their ages, I just thought, ‘to hell with this’.”
In reality, she is anything but: she plays golf with a coterie of pals, most of whom are in their 50s. She goes “haring off” with a number of interests: until two years ago, she was the president of Active Retirement Ireland, and remains actively involved in a number of community and advocacy groups in Wicklow. Last year, she tried zip-lining for the first time in Austria.
“It keeps me out of the house so I don’t have to do the housework,” she laughs.
Of her 70s, Mai notes that one of the biggest upsides is “you can say exactly what you like”.
“If you don’t like something or the food is rotten in a restaurant, I’d be the first to tell them to take it away, whereas most people don’t bother,” she says. “I’d be very vocal and it does get me into trouble, I might add.”
Mai has little truck with the conceit that women become invisible as they get older. “I’ve never been invisible, I’ll tell you that much. I’ve made sure of it,” she smiles. “I see some people in my age bracket though and I think, ‘God almighty, why can’t they be more assertive?’.”
Mai has been married to Fran, who she met in her teens, for 59 years. Theirs, she says, is a marriage that has gotten even better in time.
“I’d often be flying in and out of the house, and he’d have dinner ready when I get home,” she says. Recently, he said to me, when we were on holidays in the Algarve, ‘I feel like we’ve discovered one another all over again’.”
Annie Thompson (70), a retired PE teacher and florist, got married for the second time to the love of her life six years ago.
“To have that love at 70 is truly amazing, and he’s a gorgeous man,” she says. “There’s none of that having to look beautiful and make an effort to be stunning and all of that. There’s a lovely freedom. You can just be yourself. When you’re younger, there’s a need to be as perfect as you can be. But there’s a lovely comfort in my relationship – Bill loves it when I’m dressed up like the cat’s pyjamas, but doesn’t mind if I have bed-head either.”
The road to self-assurance, much as with Mai, wasn’t a straightforward one, and Annie admits to having her own crisis of confidence much earlier on in life.
“The one time I hated the idea of getting older was ahead of my 30th birthday,” Annie admits. “As a 20-year-old, I was married with three kids and very settled, and I found that I just got on with it. These days, I love life and am definitely not the kind of person to dwell too heavily on what age I am.”
Turning 70 last August, she recalls, brought with it “an extraordinary freedom”.
“It was actually a very physical feeling of joy where a lot of things suddenly didn’t matter,” she recalls. “I have been grateful for the good things in my life. I’m on the other side of the hill, that’s for sure. But I’m lucky in that I have my health for the most part.”
Annie notes that she has encountered ageism in her time, albeit mostly indirectly.
“It upsets me greatly to see,” she admits. “I think some people are badly treated because they’re old – I guess it can depend on your social standing and your financial background, but people can be cruel. I don’t experience ageism personally, but that might be because most of the people around me don’t think I’m old. I’m still sporty, despite having a touch of arthritis a couple of years ago, but I play golf regularly and I’m in a place where there are a lot of young people around me.
“I’m very much in the third part of my life. I’d genuinely love to make it to 100 and have all my marbles.”
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