It’s not often that I feel old.
Sure, sometimes I look in the mirror and notice a wrinkle or saggy bit, or I see my knees drooping in a downward dog. But mostly I’m too busy getting on with life to worry too much about grey hair and wrinkles.
However, last year as I rock climbed up a cliff face on the Greek Island of Kalymnos, I felt every single one of my 59 years. I clung to the hidden finger pockets and tiny toe edges searching desperately for the next hold as my body ached with the effort. I thought: ‘I’m too old for this! Fancy thinking I could still be a rock climber as I hurtle towards sixty.”
Then, in a coincidence so cheesy and unbelievable it belonged in an early ‘90s romcom, an elderly lady, grey hair streaming, climbed past me like a spider up the wall.
Well shit, I thought. If that’s not a sign, I don’t know what is.
Watching her, I was reminded of something I often tell my daughter, my clients and my friends: “Getting older doesn’t mean slowing down. There’s no reason you can’t lead an adventurous life as you age!”
And in that moment, I went from dreading my milestone sixtieth to embracing it.
It’s impossible not to get caught up in our youth-obsessed culture, where how you look matters so much. Instead of valuing the wisdom, skill and experience that comes with age, our society prizes flawless skin and perky, young bodies above all. We feel pressure to have “work” done… a little bit of Botox in our late twenties, fillers in our thirties, an eye lift in our forties, a face lift in our fifties, and so on. By the time you’re sixty, even if you haven’t had cosmetic surgery, most women have still spent oodles of their precious time and money on plucking, waxing, moisturising, colouring, conditioning, tanning, masking, manicuring, toning, priming, prepping and primping.
Our obsession with youth and beauty means we see age as a curse rather than a gift. A burden, rather than an opportunity that gives you the freedom to live the way you want to live, without worrying about what others think.
But we need to think differently. As Ariana Huffington says in her recent blog, “Getting older is about liberation.”
Aging does not need to be an illness and it should not limit our ability to soar beyond our wildest dreams.
Back on that cliff in Kalymnos, I struggled to the top. It was challenging, but I did it, inspired by the older woman with the streaming hair. I knew I had to find her, to ask her how she was so fit, so strong, so… full of life!
Luckily, I bumped into her at the bottom of the cliffs and we got chatting. Her name was Eileen. She and her boyfriend Sydney, who was belaying her, were well into their seventies, but they hadn’t let that stop them travelling the world, hiking and rock climbing.
It turns out that Sydney had summitted Mt Ama Dablam, a technical high-altitude peak in the Everest region of Nepal, aged 73. To put this into perspective, Mt Ama Dablam is more technically challenging than Mt Everest and is a serious achievement for climbers half his age.
When I was a spritely 52, I did the world’s highest handstand on Ama Dablam, with the support of a climbing Sherpa and my mountain guide boyfriend. Even with that level of support, it was the most terrifying experience of my life. And Sydney had just quietly climbed it at 73.
I thought Ama Dablam was my swan-song … my final burst of extreme adventuring before I wore out. But upon seeing Eileen and Sydney in action, I began adapting my expectations of what was possible in years to come.
After this experience, I thought more about aging. I started to readjust my expectations for what the future holds. And now, I’ve decided that rather than slowing down, I’m going to speed up.
Recently, I met a woman called Heather, who is an 92-year-old multiple world champion in race walking. Yes, it’s a thing. Heather took up walking at 84, and she’s so glad she did. She travels the world and loves her new life. Forget bridge and tea parties – Heather spends her leisure time walking.
These women inspire me, and now I’ve got plans to get even wilder.
I used to worry when my kids said: “Mum, you’re not normal!” But now I’m delighted.
If “normal” means seeing aging as negative, as degeneration, as illness and death, I don’t want to be normal. I don’t want to accept that getting older means getting sick. With the right lifestyle, aging can be healthy, vital and fabulous. By moving my body regularly, eating healthily, managing my stress, having strong relationships and sleeping well, there’s no reason I can’t keep climbing and hiking my way into my seventies, eighties and beyond.
As I climb into my new sexagenarian life, I know there’s no better time to be alive.