The Incredible Art of Ageing

My Mother and My Dad’s Mum at 101

Growing older is a given. Despite much research, discussion and striving to avoid it, you just can not prevent getting older, and the old adage of there being 2 things in this world being certain – death and taxes – is still true. You can not put off death. It happens to all of us. From the day you are born you are walking through your journey to the inevitable end. This idea seems to strike fear and panic in many, but not in others. Why is that? Why do some people spend their lives (and wasted money) on trying to prevent growing old? Why do some people develop an out of proportion fear of ageing and death, while others seem to swing in the wind defying it, seeking thrill after thrill that stamps their aliveness firmly in the sand; or walking quietly through their days, enjoying every moment.

I was at the beauty salon recently, because I am vain and I do go to get certain areas waxed and preened from time to time, as well as enjoying a decadent facial or massage – and I chatted to the girl about my anti ageing product stance. She was a little offended, being in the beauty industry and strongly supporting anti ageing skin care, until I explained it wasn’t about using face creams, but more about people being driven to inject their faces, lips or eyeballs (yes it’s a thing) with toxins, in the race to stay younger looking; or cutting, slashing, adding and deleting parts of their body to look a certain way and striving to be like the young models splashed all over popular culture. Does it irk you as much as me when they use a 25 year old model in an anti ageing face cream advertisement?

If you take a moment to really look, listen and consider an elderly person, they are magnificent. I was lucky enough to have 4 grandparents for much of my life, my two grandmothers living far longer than my grandfathers – with one passing in her 90’s and the other, almost 102 years old. Both were beautiful, intelligent, feisty women, full of heart and passion for life. As they grew older their outer looks changed, reflected all the years they had traversed this earth, all the places they had been, the children they had grown, the grandchildren they had loved. Their hands showed lines from hard work, many hours spent immersed in hot water, washing away the dirt; all that baking, making and creating. Their faces crinkled where they had spent hours laughing with me while we chatted, or played a game of Yahtzee. Their bodies aged and broke in parts eventually, making it harder for them to move through their days, but their stories filled my head, and even now when they are no longer physically here, they are as much a part of who I am as the growing lines on my own hands and face.

I watch now as my parents grow older, the same remarkable people as they have always been, just with more stories, more experiences, more changes to their bodies, but ever the same inside. I remember my dad’s mum once saying to me in her late 90’s that she still felt 16 years old inside and what a shock it was sometimes to see herself in the mirror. As I head towards 50, I must say that I am starting to feel some of this too, that I feel the same me I have always been, yet I notice a sense that I am more than halfway through my life. I have never really feared death. It is just not something that worries me. I do fear being left unable to speak or move, so disabled that I am trapped. That would be worse than death, and watching my darling mother in law die with motor neurone disease, I must say it is often the dying part that is worse than actual death.

But die we all must and as we move towards that inevitable end, we age, we grow older, we change, we move, we grow. If somebody offered you the chance to go backwards in your life, like in a Hollywood movie, you would go back to your teenage years and start again, would you do it? I always say no if asked this question. I remember when diagnosed with type 1 diabetes as a girl, being told I would have my life shortened by at least 15 years. I grew up with the notion that getting to 70 years old would be a feat, a blessing. In some ways I still feel the same, yet as I edge closer to that age and see others in the world living longer with type 1 diabetes, I am hopeful that there may be more than that, because it is not about not loving life, or wanting to be here as long as possible, it is about enjoying the ride and not trying to take away the glorious signs on the outside, the pride that I have lived this far.

Growing older does not push me to avoid ageing on the outside, to pretend to look the same as when I was younger, but there is a difference between caring for your body on the inside, to give it the best chance, and worrying about your body on the outside. As far as I can see it is the former that matters most. Living with a life threatening chronic disease, one that has indeed caused damage to my body inside and out, I think that the most important part of ageing is to stay healthy on the inside, and to stay who you are. The outside just reflects the magic of your life. It tells stories of your adventures, the things you did or didn’t do, the way your particular body has decided to grow old. Your body is your vehicle to the adventure of life, it carries you through and in the end, once you are gone, it is laid to rest. If your body has parts that don’t work properly, it makes the journey even more amazing. It does not mean I enjoy some of the parts of growing old, like additional health problems, challenges, cranky knees and changing hormones, but yet, I would not swap where I am now, for my younger years. I do not want to change a thing – the terrible, the traumatic (and trust me there has been plenty of this) nor the wonderful (and trust me there has been plenty of that) – for that all reflects the tapestry of my life.

My 18 year old son said to me the other day that whenever he starts to get angry or upset about what someone has said to him he tells himself, “words are just sounds…they are just repetitive noises, they are nothing else”. He then reminds himself how lucky he is to have a home and a family who loves him, how incredibly lucky he feels to be right where he is. I hope he stays like that through all of his life. All lives are complicated. All of us experience the journey in our own way. All of us age. All of us die. Yet all of us live. Some of us have far more challenges than others, and often it it those against the odds that are seemingly the happiest. Happy does not mean an absence of sadness, or fear, or worry. By happiness I mean an ability to accept, adjust, roll with the punches, work through things, experience everything, all the small moments, all the big ones and everything in between. To learn from those moments, to do things differently next time, to see help, to love, to experience, not just exist.

Why is it that we have become stuck on the idea of ageing being a bad thing? There is so much focus on looking a particular way and this leads to discrimination against those with facial difference, or who dare to stand up and be unique. Layered on this is the idea that youth is the ultimate goal. We focus on the negativity of crinkles and lines and wobbly bits and breasts that you can sling over your shoulder. Women in particular are pressured by an incredibly powerful industry to “look good” and stay young”. Youth is in and old is out. The definition of beauty is one directional and skewed. It leads to discrimination, hate and devastation. It also leads to feisty remarkable people like my friend Carly Findlay, who is a writer, speaker and appearance activist you really should check out.

Some people feel that they become invisible as they age, others stand up and say LOOK AT ME, see me roar. I have battled some of this but at the end of the day I am so damn proud of my body and what it has done – just look at what it has done. As someone who has defied death each and every day, with thanks to Banting and Best, and who is not just living with type 1 diabetes but THRIVING, I am definitely not going to cry on my 50th birthday. I am going to stand up and shout about how lucky I am to be here, how magnificent a life can be, how much I love my body, and how much more there is yet to come.

Helen

5 Comments

  1. Rick Phillips on June 19, 2017 at 10:13 am

    I turn 60 in 3 days. I adore the thought of being 60, and no I would never turn back the clock. Yes, of course, I have regrets and things I would do differently, but if I did, I would not be me. So, all in all, I am what I am, and after 43 years with diabetes, that is plenty good for me.

    • Helen Edwards on June 19, 2017 at 12:30 pm

      Rick firstly happy birthday!! 60 is a wonderful place to be. And 43 epic years with type 1 diabetes. Thank you so much for sharing and may you celebrate every day

    • Helen Wilde on June 19, 2017 at 1:52 pm

      Congratulations and Happy Birthday, Rick!

  2. Helen Wilde on June 19, 2017 at 1:53 pm

    Wonderful attitude, Helen. Congratulations and enjoy the ride! Life is a blessing, especially in a free country like Australia where there are so many choices and opportunities.

    • Helen Edwards on June 19, 2017 at 3:29 pm

      we are so very very lucky

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