In which I ponder…ageing and ageism

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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

In which I ponder…ageism, sexism and the single middle aged woman

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When I left my husband my self esteem was pretty much in tatters, but after many months of bewilderment, crying and hiding in my bed, I dusted myself off and created an online dating profile.

Much to my surprise, I seemed to be attracting the attention of men in their late twenties. I was suspicious – it must be some sort of trick surely, that would end with them relieving me of my life savings and leaving me with a broken heart. Except that  I had no savings and my heart was already broken – so really – why not?

So I went out on a date with Tom. I met him in a bar after attending a charity function, at which I mentioned to a girlfriend that I was going on a date with a 25 year old.

‘Be careful’, she said. ‘You’ll get a reputation.’

‘A reputation for what?’

‘You know…a reputation…’

And so it began – my introduction to what I could now be judged on.

As it happened, I met Tom at the bar, and wasn’t massively impressed. But he wanted to meet me again for dinner, so I went, and this time I realised I had misjudged him, probably because I was a bit drunk. He was an exceptionally unusual person. He only drank water – ever – and he had an inner calm at his core that I’ve never seen in anyone before or since*. We saw each other exclusively for about 5 months, at which point it became clear that he was too busy with his two businesses and his job for any sort of relationship, even the very casual one he had with me. But what was important about this relationship was that very quickly both our ages became very irrelevant. We shared interests in film and books, and he was significantly more mature in many respects than I was. He actually knew who he was, what he wanted and where he was going – and he was going there. I literally had no idea. Where I was all at sea, he was the mainland – reliable, constant and sure.

Then I met Jake. I was very suspicious about him initially. He was 28, a model and a tv presenter and was – by anyone’s standards – exceptionally attractive. But it turned out that he liked me and found me attractive – to the extent that we saw each other until I dropped him at the airport six months later to return to his native Ireland.

A friend told me ‘these young guys are just using you’.

‘What for?!’ I asked incredulously

‘For sex’, she said.

If it wasn’t so hilariously ridiculous I’d have been angry. He was a half Italian, half Nigerian model who had won Mr. World. He could get sex anywhere. Each morning that I woke up with this man in my bed I thanked God and anyone else I could think of that he had come into my life, even for a fleeting moment. In my 44 years, I never thought I would ever see a body like that up close and personal – and I was very grateful I had. If anyone was using anyone for sex, it was probably me. I knew we weren’t waltzing off into the sunset together – we were enjoying the moment. And despite assumptions made about the basis of our relationship, the truth was that much of the time we spent together was passed busking on the piano and writing treatments for tv shows.

People would say to me – what on earth have you got in common (the subtext being – apart from the obvious…)? But the reality is that these days the differences between the generations are not so much a gulf as a small crack that is easily stepped over. We often listen to the same music, frequent many of the same watering holes, watch the same movies and have similar outlooks on life. Many younger people are better travelled, more stocked up on life experience than my generation, who had fewer opportunities and were burdened with more expectations than today’s young people. And in many respects, at this point Tom, Jake and I were at similar moments in our lives – looking forwards in a changing world, with everything still to play for.

However, this sort of attitude to these relationships led to some friends – mainly women sadly – starting to take a view of me and my behaviour that can only be described as judgmental. Along with the boyfriends, my clothes started to come under scrutiny (‘you’re not twenty you know’ a friend told me once when we were shopping together). Then my weight, and my renewed interest in keeping fit – all obviously designed to ensnare young men apparently. You exercise too much, they said. Why are you bothering with all that? Erm – well, because health and all that…

The reality was, though, that I had never pursued younger men, and in fact the vast majority of the men I’ve dated have been mid to late 40s – probably just as you’d expect.

The hypocrisy of all this is, of course, that if the tables had been turned and I had been an older guy dating younger women, people wouldn’t have been so appalled. And even if they had reservations they would have been very different to the ones expressed to me. Sadly, I still think much of the judgement would be about the woman – gold digger, seeking a father figure etc etc.

Of course, the other level of hypocrisy here is that here I was being judged on my behaviour as a completely single woman, dating completely single men, ironically by people who didn’t feel it was their place to judge my ex husband on his behaviour as a married man with married women. Some of them remained friends with my ex husband, whilst their relationship with me waned, largely because they were disapproving of some of my choices post-divorce and, I think, because he quickly settled down with a new partner, and therefore looked superficially more socially acceptable than me in my dangerous singledom.

Very few people met either Tom or Jake. In fact I have very rarely introduced anyone to any of the men I’ve been in relationships with over the years – probably because of this early experience. I don’t want to be judged and I don’t want them to be judged. I’d rather leave any relationship to develop away from the interest of others, so that both of us can find out whether hearing the views of friends and family is going to be relevant or not in the long run.

Tom’s now 28 and lives on the Gold Coast, having opened up a second office for his private equity company. We still talk regularly and spend the odd weekend together. We like each other. It’s as simple as that and nothing more. I really hope that some day in the future he realises that working might deliver ‘things’ but it won’t ever make his heart sing. As I said to him the last time we spent some time together – ‘you should really get a girlfriend. It’s such a waste…you’d make someone a great boyfriend’…

Jake returned to Ireland, where he now presents the national lottery on TV, met a beautiful Zumba instructor and had a baby boy.

For myself, I think my period of dating significantly younger men is over – but when I look back on Tom and Jake, I feel like they were a gift. My heart was broken and I’d lost all faith in myself as a woman. Those two relationships restored my sense of womanhood, my self esteem and helped destroy my fear that there might be something wrong with me that had led to my ex husband’s extreme infidelity. And they both treated me with enormous respect at all times, behaving as though they felt they were lucky to be with me – which has contrasted enormously with men from my own generation, who have behaved generally much more as though they thought they were entitled to me in some way, and that I should be grateful for their attention. These were transformative relationships for me and I’m so grateful for them.

No regrets.

*actually this isn’t entirely true. I had seen it in someone once before – a 52 year old commercial lawyer I went on a couple of dates with who had, quite uniquely, also been a hari krishna monk for 8 years. He had an extraordinary presence and stillness, and when I mentioned to Tom that he reminded me of this man, it turned out he was his uncle…

Names have been changed to protect the innocent