I’ve watched two friends turn fifty this week. Twenty, 30, 40, 60… new decades have a way of making us reflect more on where we’ve come to and what we want next. Their birthdays have brought to mind that great Joan Rivers’ saying, “Looking 50 is great if you’re 60.”
There’s something about turning half a century old, however, that makes people stop and think, reflect and plan, sometimes panic. It shares the same fears and expectations of seeing in the New Year – but for your life. You need to be with the right people, in the right place, have the right face on to front the second half.
The recent National Aged Care Summit in Hobart had us thinking about getting older. We heard about the “tsunami of old people” on our doorstep, “the baby boomer bulge”, and how Tasmania is the oldest state in the country (with 16% of our population aged 65+), and ageing faster than any other state. We learnt how demographers divide our ageing population into ‘young olds’ (60-74), ‘mid olds’ (75–84) and ‘older olds’ (85+). How, based on the 2011 Census, 1 in 6 Tasmanians were aged 65+. In 2020, they project that will be 1 in 5, and 1 in 4 by 2030.
In focusing too much on the measuring of age, somehow we wind up thinking an ageing population is a bad thing. Maybe when you count things they get worse. Can we learn to use different words, like ‘the elders’? Or, ‘people older than us’? Or, people in the second half of their life, however long that turns out to be?
Then we might stop thinking of old age as if it were a disease, and more of the mystery that it is. Elders and people older than us are individuals, rather than an expanding, homogenous mass. They know more, have lived longer, weighed it all up and spat it back out. They’re survivors, not on the downhill run of a demographer’s measure.
We are counting too much. Thanks to a friend (who’s about to turn 60) I’ve recently discovered there’s a word for it: “performativity”. She gave me a paper by sociology professor Stephen Ball who defines performativity in an education policy context. He says, “It requires individual practitioners to organize themselves as a response to targets, indicators and evaluations. To set aside personal beliefs and commitments and live an existence of calculation.”
In his 2001 book The Tyranny of Numbers David Boyle wrote, “We take our collective pulse 24 hours a day with the use of statistics. We understand life that way, though somehow the more figures we use, the more the great truths seem to slip through our fingers. Despite all that numerical control, we feel as ignorant of the answers to the big questions as ever.”
When I think about the elders I know the arc of their lives is so much more fascinating than the short-lived burning desires of youth. Many are spending the second half of their life recovering from being a young person. Many are off the track we think we all need to be on and doing the things they want to do – an attitude often mistakenly thought of as ‘grumpy’. More often than not it’s just contrary to what is expected of them and they’re finally free of paying up and shutting up.
My 50-year-old friend decided to take her motorbike test and buy a second hand bike. She’s riding it now in leathers and beeps every time she roars past the house. At 69, another friend has signed up to study an online course in geology. Another, at 59, starts each morning with an ocean swim. Their age is not the important thing. They’re living a life well lived.
My friend who turns 50 today said how hard it was to hear people complaining about getting older when others haven’t had the chance. Tonight, as she gathers to sing, dance and count her fifty blessings with her loved ones and closest friends, she’ll miss the friend who didn’t make it. She’ll think of others turning 50 who’ve dealt with so much more grief and heartache. Which is why she’s seeing her 50th as a once in a lifetime occasion.
I asked for her thoughts on turning 50. “Life goes fast and can change in a instant,” she wrote, “and so 50 seems as good a time as any to take stock, say thank you, tell the people you love how important they are to you and challenge yourself to live the next stage of your life as best you can.”
Next week she’s jetting off to New York for the first time. Fifty’s a number she’s chosen to embrace. Meanwhile, I’ve been raiding the book of milestone birthday quotations, and chosen this by Albert Einstein.
“People like you and I, though mortal of course like everyone else, do not grow old no matter how long we live…[We] never cease to stand like curious children before the great mystery into which we were born.”
Happy 50th Birthdays to Roisin: thank you for your magic and words, and to Bron: thank you for your friendship and all the loving things you do.