BOLDER: MAKING THE MOST OF OUR LONGER LIVES
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What is BOLDER about?
Ageing – how we can do it better and feel better about doing it. It’s also a rallying cry against the last form of discrimination that dare speak its name: ageism.
Is there a particular age group the book is aimed at?
Not at all. It’s for anyone of any generation who is pondering (or worrying about) what it means to grow older. I wish there had been a book like this around when I was 30: it would have saved me two decades of anxiety and dread!
So what inspired you to write BOLDER?
I was at a hockey tournament, and playing well, when I suddenly discovered I was the oldest player there. For some reason the news shook me to the core. I began wondering whether I looked out of place, whether people were laughing at me, whether I should take up a more gentle pastime, like Bingo. It got me thinking about how we often feel ashamed and afraid of growing older. How we imagine it’s all about loss, decline, decrepitude and sadness. Is it any wonder that “age” is the number one answer that comes up on Google Search when you type in “I lie about my…”? After the shock at that hockey tournament, I wanted to know if there was another, happier story to tell about ageing. Full disclosure: I wrote BOLDER to help myself feel better about my own advancing years.
Did it work?
Yes, it did! I feel a million times better about growing older than I did when I began the research. Why? Because so many of my own downbeat assumptions about ageing turned out to be wrong. And because – and this is the really exciting bit – so many things can get better as we grow older.
The thing that really blew me away is that people are generally more contented in later life. Across the world happiness seems to follow a U-shaped curve, bottoming out in middle age and then rising again thereafter. Even Pete Townshend confessed to feeling more cheerful in his 60s than he was when he wrote one of the most ageist lines in the pop music canon: ‘Hope I die before I get old.’ We become more comfortable in our own skin and less worried about what others think of us. We tend to form stronger, more fulfilling relationships as we age. Ageing also makes many of us more altruistic and eager to serve the common good.
Doesn’t ageing kill off romance and sex?
Not necessarily. Another part of my research that startled me (in a good way) was discovering just how many people are falling head over heels and/or enjoying great sex in later life. The conventional wisdom that romance and bedroom fireworks belong to the young is flat-out wrong. Hurray!
What about all the terrible things that happen to our bodies and brains as we age?
The news is not nearly as bad as you think. These days we have more and more levers to pull (nutrition, technology, medicine, exercise) to go on doing amazing things with our bodies deep into later life. That is why the media is packed with stories about people kitesurfing in their fifties, climbing mountains in their sixties, running marathons in their seventies, cycling long distance in their eighties and swimming competitively in their nineties. Today, theaverage over-65-year-old is in better shape than ever before. Japan is even toying with moving the age when someone is deemed rojin, or old, from 65 to 75.
How about what ageing does to our brains?
Of course, we lose some cognitive zip as we grow older but our brains are extremely good at compensating. That’s why creativity can carry on right up to the end of our lives: think of Louise Bourgeois coming up with those iconic giant spiders in her 80s. Some experts think ageing alters the brain structure in ways that make us even more creative. Older adults also tend to be better at seeing the big picture, embracing compromise, weighing multiple points of view and accepting that knowledge can only take you so far. When tackling problems in a familiar field, older brains are quicker to spot the patterns and details that open the door to finding a solution. After sifting through piles of studies, researchers at Harvard University concluded that four key skills do not ripen fully until around the age of 50: arithmetic, vocabulary, general knowledge and a grasp of how the world works. We can also carry on learning new things right up to the end of life.
What about dementia?
Without doubt dementia is the darkest cloud hanging over later life. Not only is there no cure but we do not even know why it strikes in the first place. Nevertheless, the picture is not as apocalyptic as the headlines proclaim. Around 17 per cent of people over the age of 80 have dementia, but that means the other 83 per cent do not. And researchers are confident that we’re on the road to making breakthroughs in both treatment and prevention.
Is there more good news?
You betcha: the list goes on. Social and emotional smarts often improve with age, too. We get better at reading people. Our richer vocabulary helps us speak, write and communicate better and our capacity to co-operate and negotiate improves. We also get better at putting ourselves in other people’s shoes, finding compromises and resolving conflicts. As we age, we become less prone to wild swings of emotion and better able to cope with negative feelings such as anger, fear and envy. In other words, we find it easier to keep our heads while all about us are losing theirs.
What does all this mean for ageing in the workplace?
It means that older workers can bring a lot to the party. Productivity rises with age in jobs that rely on social skills – as more and more do nowadays. When companies set up suggestion boxes, older staff usually generate more and better ideas, with the best proposals tending to come from the over- 55s.
But isn’t the start-up world dominated by young guns?
On the contrary. Older people are smashing it in the start-up world. A study of all new businesses launched in the United States between 2007 and 2014 came to the following conclusion: “We find no evidence to suggest that founders in their 20s are especially likely to succeed. Rather, all evidence points to founders being especially successful when starting businesses in middle age or beyond.” Bottom line: the idea of being ‘finished at forty’ is absurd.
What makes you think we can learn to be less ageist?
Because the world is changing in ways that herald a golden age of ageing. More jobs rely on the social acumen that improves with age. Every day, medics are getting better at managing the diseases and decline that come in later life. Every year there are more older people on the planet – and there is strength in numbers. It is harder to dismiss or denigrate a growing chunk of the population, especially when so many of them are taking life by the scruff of the neck. At the moment, at least, older generations are loaded – and money talks.
What does history tell us about attitudes to ageing?
That they can change over time. Human beings may be hardwired to admire young bodies and recoil from anything that portends death, but beyond that how we feel about growing older is shaped by culture – and culture evolves. In 17th- and 18th- century Europe, for instance, young men actually tried to look older by wearing powdered wigs and clothes tailored to give the impression of ageing bodies.
Is there a link between your earlier books on slowing down and BOLDER?
Yes, there is. Ageing does slow us down in some ways, which can seem like the worst thing in a world in thrall to speed. But what I showed in my earlier books is that faster isn’t always better. If we let it, ageing can nudge us into embracing the many benefits of slowness. As we age, we tend to get better at being present and in the moment, which is a first step to well-being, pleasure and fulfilment. We make fewer mistakes at work. We connect the dots better. We also start to see the bigger picture more clearly – both in our own personal lives and in the world in general. Sportspeople often find that the deceleration brought on by ageing pushes them into treating their bodies more wisely.
Has writing BOLDER changed you?
Yes, profoundly. It has made me feel so much more at ease with the idea of growing older. Like anyone else, I still worry about what the passage of time will do to my health, my finances, my looks, my loved ones. Nor am I in a hurry for my life to end. But such worries feel less daunting now because I know that, with a little luck and the right attitude, lots of good stuff awaits me in the coming years. Best of all, I no longer feel ashamed to play hockey (or any other sport) with people much younger than me!
What do you hope readers will learn from BOLDER?
To see ageing in a completely new light. I hope they will move from fear and dread to the kind of understanding and optimism that will help them make the most of their lives – at every age. My first three books – let’s call them the Slow trilogy – took down the canard that faster is always better. BOLDER is about taking down the canard that younger is always better. I also hope to spark a wider public debate about attitudes to ageing. If all of us are going to have an equal chance of ageing better then we need to rewrite the rules of everything, from the workplace and education to design and social services.
Stoked to be speaking at this life-changing event in Sydney, Australia. A few tickets still remaining. PM me for discount code.
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English actor Darren Boyd will be reading my new book, BOLDER, on BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week. Starting December 17th.
He’s smart, hunky and blessed with a sense of humour and fine comic timing. What more could you ask for?
Other than that he also be Canadian, but you can’t have everything….
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Thrilled to be judging Inntravel’s Slow Moment competition for 2018.
Upload a photo, a video or even a short text capturing your best Slow Travel moment. One entry wins a prize every month.
From the 12 monthly winners, I will choose the overall winner for 2018.
This year’s annual prize: a 6-night, hotel-to-hotel walking holiday around Germany’s Lake Constance.
On yer bike!
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