So I’m in Canberra at the Australian Association of Gerontology’s National Conference and I have to say that I’m feeling a bit bleak.
Not just because I’m in Canberra*, but also because I’m finding out a lot of very worrying information about myself.
Here I am, a mere 18 months or so off being 50 and feeling quite dynamic really. I feel like my career has taken off again over the last few years, that I still have a lot to give and that there is still a fair bit of progression/promotion left in me. I feel better about my body than I probably ever have. And I’m probably fitter than I was in my 30s. If you ignore a tendency to forget what I was talking about, I think my mind is generally as sharp as it’s ever been. It’s certainly more full of stuff anyway.
But apparently, things are not looking good for me. I can’t tell you the number of times over the last few days that I’ve checked in with a speaker to see what they mean by ‘older’ and been told 50. The Older Women’s Network starts at 45 for God’s sake! And suddenly I feel old and relegated to the scrap heap.
The news everyone has for me is not good either. I am apparently more likely to be discriminated against at work, passed over for promotion and unable to find employment after being retrenched. As a woman, if I am single, over 50 and living in rental accommodation (oops) I am at significantly higher risk of homelessness after I retire than other groups. Of course my disease risk is much higher too, and I’m more likely to be lonely and lack social connections, especially if I’m single – and the news there is not just the tragedy of being Billy No Mates but also the added bonus of a research study that has shown that weak social connections has the same impact on our health as smoking, and increases your risk of death by between 50% and 90%. Awesome.
There has been some good news though. Older people (in this particular study, they meant over 65s – yay!) are the biggest growth group in online dating and the evidence is that they are having lots of sex with multiple partners (again yay for ageing!). However the reason we know this is that there has been a 50% increase in the incidence of sexually transmitted infections in the age group (oh…). It seems this age group, who often have had only one sexual partner in their life prior to divorce or bereavement, missed out on sex ed and see condoms only as barrier protection against pregnancy and not against disease. Thankfully, there are people working on addressing this.
On the other hand though, another study that was presented found positive correlation between sexual activity and physical intimacy, and happiness in older people in Australia**, so despite having gonorrhea, all those over 65s are probably feeling pretty perky.
I don’t want to think that all the future holds for me is loneliness, unemployment, homelessness and a nasty case of syphilis. I think you’ll agree that would be disproportionate. It’s hard to believe that my career might already be over (one of the speakers talked about reaching the peak of your career around 50 and then opportunities diminishing. If that’s true, I’m in trouble), and although I’m currently in retirement from the dating scene, I do try to keep an optimistic outlook – either about eventually meeting someone, or having a great life on my own.
However, I am a bit concerned about how our demographic changes and the ‘grey tsunami’ that’s on its way will work against the backdrop of a society that so values youthfulness. Which is where the photo above of Cate Blanchett comes in. Cate was born within a year of me. In the photo above she has been clearly photo shopped so that there is not a wrinkle in sight. She is as lithe as a teenager. Now to be fair, even when she hasn’t been photo shopped she is exceptionally beautiful, but really that’s the point. Magazines exort us to look younger, they try to sell us clothes that are modeled by girls who are as young as our daughters, and promote images of older women that are unachievable and what’s more, dishonest.
And how does all that play out in real life, for the normal, single woman who is knocking 50? Well I was recently out for dinner with a male, single friend and we were discussing male attitudes to women’s bodies. I was initially reassured when he was telling me about how much he appreciated ‘real’ women’s bodies with curves and imperfections and the maturity that older women bring. But later when we were having a laugh and comparing online dating profiles, it turned out that the age range he had specified started at 27 and ended a year before my age. He’s 5 years older than me. So when it comes to it, they say – hey – I see your wisdom, your emotional maturity, and your valiant efforts to hold back time and be the best version of your 48 year old self that you can – and that’s great and everything. But I’ll trump that with some pert breasts, some shapely legs and a flat tummy unravaged by pregnancy and childbirth*** thank you very much.
Where will it all end? Who knows? Tomorrow I have Elder Abuse – what’s so special? Existing legal protections and Re-imagining Ageing to look forward to. I’ll let you know if there is any better news…
*by far the weirdest city on the planet (oh ok – Australia), but I have to say it’s growing on me. Everything is so new, and so planned, and so very neat. And there are nooks and crannies and gardens with lots of public art. So not so bad.
**Seriously. Surely no one was surprised by that?
***and the Peroni, KitKat and pack of Pringles from the mini bar I had while writing this