Living Longer, Bliss or Hell?

As a population, we are living longer. According to United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs Publications;

Many indicators point to an increase in the life span of adults in the developed world since the middle of the twentieth century. For example, the number of people reaching the age of 100 years has never been greater than it is today. These demographic changes raise two main types of questions. The first is whether life expectancy in good health can increase as much as total life expectancy or whether this increase in longevity comes at the cost of an increase in years of life in poor health and/or disability. The second type of question is whether these demographic changes are simply a new transition, after the elimination of infant mortality and premature mortality of young adults, increasing total life expectancy but without changing the characteristics of human longevity, or whether they are more fundamentally the beginnings of a change in the characteristics of human longevity, a real revolution in adult longevity. This technical paper does not claim to answer these questions but simply to present the demographic and epidemiological data that have been accumulating for more than 70 years and that still need to be analysed in order to try to answer these new questions.

Although I am no where near retirement age, I think about my working life as a whole piece. I like to think about how my actions now carve out my future with some intentionality. I don’t want to race as a fast as I can until the wheels fall off. I want to enjoy each phase, contribute positively as much as possible and have time for people and things that matter most to me. A friend of mine who is a GP has always worked 3 days a week. Years ago, she said to me that she would rather work less for longer and that has really stuck with me. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the privileged place that allows one to work 3 days a week. However, even when people have that choice, they often do not take it. Money, ego, career advancements are strong currents. It takes a brave sole to say, ‘this’ is enough.

What is the Third Phase?

The third phase of life is not strictly tied to ages. When it starts and how long it lasts varies from person to person. In this phase of life, most people no longer need to earn an income. They have more time for friends and family, hobbies, travel and cultural activities. This also creates opportunities to contribute to society in a new way, for example, as a volunteer or family-based carer, or by looking after the grandchildren. This ever-expanding period between our working life and the period of advanced old age and vulnerability forms the third phase of life. This phase starts after retirement and eventually progresses to the fourth phase of life, as vulnerability and the need for help and care increase (Summary of the advice ‘The Third Phase of Life: the Gift of the Century’). During this stage, there is often loss as well. We start losing friends and family, our bodies change and health often becomes an issue for various reasons. We are vulnerable in new ways and our social networks can dwindle.

We are so far behind in planning for our entire working life, including the third phase where you do not necessarily need to or are able to work- or at least in the same way you did in the past. At every stage of life, most people value their autonomy and want to be able to make decisions about the direction of their existence. There is always a need to connect and to have meaningful contact with others feel as though you matter.

Collective Ambitions for Older Women

Ambitions can be anything and are individual. However, as a population, I have some collective ambitions for older women. To reimagine the story of the dried up, invisible, feeble older woman. The United Nations has declared the years 2021 to 2030 to be the Decade of Healthy Ageing: a time for worldwide collaboration to promote longer and healthier lives. Now is the time to rewrite how we view older women, how we think about our current or our future selves.

Gather your wise women guides. Time and time again, when things have been really difficult, it is the circle of women I call on and it is what centres me, calls in my highest self, and gets me through to the other side. If you don’t have these communities, cultivate them. They are meaningful, they are precious, they are sacred and they provide the strong back and soft front.

Paradoxically, the reality that this group of people (older women) are so often forgotten in our culture. The unseen, the invisible in a culture that tells us women that they are most attractive before they’re even of legal drinking age. The middle ages bring complex messages about worthiness and frustratingly mostly rooted in physical attractiveness. According to PCAR’s article, Invisible woman syndrome can make aging hard by akulikowski;

A survey that studied 2,000 women revealed that by the time they reach the age of 51, many women believed they had become invisible to men. Only 15% of the women felt that they had high or very high confidence in ANY area of their lives and 46% thought no one understood or addressed what aging and older women go through.

Be it the maturation of our physical features, an empty nest, or being ignored or overlooked in public and social settings, there is an overwhelming feeling of being invisible and irrelevant for many women over 50.  But here’s the kicker, the invisibility and irrelevance that these women feel, is actually backed up by numbers, actually one number, 49.

It turns out that lots of data, including metrics on health, employment, assets, domestic violence, and sexual abuse stop at age 49.  The explanation for this limited age framework is that it stems from a focus on women of reproductive age.

At this intersection of middle age, sexism and ageism are parallel roads that many suggest disproportionately impact women. Studies reveal that women today strive to achieve aesthetic ideals because they recognize the correlation between beauty and social standing. According to Dr. Vivian Diller’s book Face It: What Women Really Feel as their Looks Change and What to Do About It, “most women agree, reporting that good looks continue to be associated with respect, legitimacy, and power in their relationships.”  In the business world, hiring, evaluations and promotions based on physical appearance push women to place the importance of beauty above that of their work and skills.

At every stage of life, we can struggle when we feel a sense of personal inadequacy. In this later stage of life, we often feel insecure because we start to think about our legacy and culture often sends us messages that we no longer matter. This is so untrue. This can be a wonderful stage of life, a huge resource for many and we must stop perpetuating this invisible narrative. Go back to defining your own success, living your values and trusting your internal wisdom. We can also keep pushing acceptance! Change is inevitable and we are not one thing at one ‘important’ stage in life. We are whole, complex, ever changing, beautiful human beings. Our visibility is not for others to decide. Been seen for all of the reasons you want to be seen for. You dictate the conditions and your own value. We, as women, must be the change for ourselves and for each other.

Go back to being enough. And trust life will go on.