How does it feel to be 57?
Yesterday was my birthday and I’ve already been asked that several times. I’m trying to remember if people used to ask that question in my younger days, but I can’t. Perhaps on the big birthdays; becoming a teenager, reaching 16, 18, 21 and then the landmarks of 30, 40 and 50. Today, I’m 57 which is not a particularly special birthday, although it feels different because yesterday was my silver wedding anniversary. But I think that question, at my age, seems to carry an undertone of “are you feeling old yet?”
I think 57 means something different now, to what it meant many years ago. Certainly for my grandparents generation, reaching 60 meant retirement or at least being within touching distance of retirement. Reaching 65 definitely heralded the end of most people’s working life. Reaching 70 meant you were old.
Of my grandparents, my mother lost her father in 1946 when he was around my age and her mother died at the age of 73. My paternal grandfather was 72 when he died and my grandmother was 80. In the next generation, Dad was 77 when he died of cancer, Mum was 82. Both had been retired for more than ten years.
Theirs was a different generation and a lot has changed. Improvements in medical science means that most of us have the possibility of a longer life; lifestyle changes gives us the risk of shortening it again. The retirement age has risen for both men and women, and the expectation of stopping work at 60 or 65 is a thing of the past. We’re living longer, working longer and I rather suspect remaining engaged with the world for longer.
A lot has been written about post-menopausal women and ‘empty nesters’. These days, if you listen to the media, it is difficult to decide whether or not the empty nest is to be dreaded or longed for, but for all of us with growing children it is bound to happen at some point. In my own case, I’ve a daughter doing A levels, hopefully bound for University either this year or next and a son of 20, living at home and working full time. But unusually for me, it’s made me think a bit about where I am in life at the moment.
Years ago, when I used to work for Relate, we used to look at Life Stages when considering the difficulties people might be having in their relationship. People react very differently to entering a different life stage and it can bring up all kinds of problems if a couple respond to a particular life stage in different ways.
Approaching the empty nest stage, I’m aware that I am in a very different place to many of my friends and family. My sister, my cousin and several of my friends who have worked full time have either retired, cut down their hours or have their eyes fixed firmly on retirement as a goal. Some of them are lucky enough to have their finances in place; others are less so, angry at the changes in the law which has pushed their dream further away. Some are hesitant about leaving the world of work; others are burned out and for them it can’t come fast enough.
I, on the other hand, have never been more excited about my future career. I have so many books to research and write, I need more hours in the day. Off the back of my writing, I’ve been asked to teach several courses at the local college on creative writing and history and I’m also starting the first year of a further education teaching course later this year. I’ve got a dozen projects both paid and unpaid on the go. In talking to friends, I realise I’ve got more in common with some of the younger women I know, who are heading back into the workplace after a break with children than many of my contemporaries. It’s odd. It’s also very exciting.
In the middle of all this, though, I’m still 57 and that gives me pause. My brain may be racing ahead, but my body is a bit more hesitant. I’ve got arthritis all over the place and I don’t have the physical energy that I used to have. When I sit writing all day and then into the evening, I can barely move when I get up. It has started to occur to me that if I want to be fit enough and healthy enough to enjoy all these amazing new opportunities, I might need to stop, take a breath and think about the physical for a while.
I have never been that interested in fitness. Lucky enough not to need to diet to keep my weight down, I have always walked regularly, but other than that I’ve really not paid that much attention to my physical health until now, when it is starting to get in the way a bit. And I realise that I’m not willing to sit back and let that happen.
57 is not old and I don’t want to feel that way. I’m thinking more carefully about my diet, and reluctantly cutting back on those extra glasses of wine. I’ve started to look at what exercises I can do to keep the arthritis at bay and strengthen those parts of the body that have been very neglected. I’m going back to the swimming pool, trying yoga and thinking of joining a tap dance class. I’ve been on the rowing machine and tried, very cautiously, some light weight training. And earlier this week, for the first time in very many years, I got back on a bike and tried to remember how to cycle. I’m never going to be keen on health and fitness as a hobby, but if I’m going to still be writing, teaching and researching into my seventies, which I would love to do, I realise I need to do some work on my body as well as my brain.
So how does it feel to be 57? It feels like a bit of a landmark for me. It’s the year that I decide to take charge, not to let the weeks drift by, because they drift too fast and too far and I don’t want to find myself in a place where I can’t do what I want to do any more, at least not without making a really good effort to improve things. 57 is when I don’t have a child in school any more, I may fairly soon not have any children living at home. 57, I’ve decided, is the year I start to put myself and what I want ahead of the needs of my family sometimes, because they don’t need me all the time the way they used to.
I don’t feel old at 57. In three years time, I’ll be 60 and perhaps I’ll feel different then, but I do hope not. At 57, what I mostly feel is very lucky.