Seven Australians in their 50s, 60s and 70s challenge the notion that older women become invisible
by Neha Kale and Isabella Moore
Main image: Nadine Bush, 55 Photograph: Isabella Moore for the Guardian
Women have always had an acute awareness of growing old. In her acclaimed May 2015 essay The Insults of Age, Helen Garner explores the ways in which getting older means being erased from a culture that equates youth and beauty and beauty with value – a cruel and thankless algebra. “Your face is lined, and your hair is grey, so they think you are weak, deaf, helpless, ignorant and stupid,” she writes. “It is assumed that you have no opinions and no standards of behaviour, that nothing that happens in your vicinity is any of your business.”
When women lose cultural currency, they also pay for it in literal currency. According to a 2016 report from Monash University researchers, commissioned by the Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation, 34% of women aged over 60 live in permanent income poverty. In the same year a report from the Australian Human Rights Commission found that nearly one-third of workers 50 and over were discriminated against in the workforce, with older women being more adversely impacted than older men. And March 2018 figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics found a 31% increase in older women experiencing homelessness since 2011, while men experiencing homelessness increased by 26%.
On one hand, the cultural conversation surrounding women and ageing has never been louder. On the other, the language of the pro-ageing movement – centred on the likes of Joan Didion in Céline campaigns, the lack of roles for celebrities like Nicole Kidman and wealthy, (mostly) white style bloggers – can create another ideal that’s impossible to aspire to.
Older women’s experiences are as shaped by cultural background and life trajectories as they are by birthdates and generational divides. Ageing is the sum of many conflicting feelings and forces. Freedom from the erotic gaze can spark a sense of grief and loss. But it can also lead to a newfound sense of independence and radical possibility.
There is no right way to get older.
At 60, anything I try to resist in life, I know I’ll suffer a lot. Every time I turn another year older, it’s a new chapter. I’m trying to date at the moment, which is slightly unfortunate at any time but especially at this age. On dating sites I don’t say that I am younger than I am because I don’t want to be with a younger person. I think that would make me feel embarrassed about aches and pains, even though I know that I am quite youthful for my age.
We’re surrounded by ideals of beauty all the time and sometimes I look at myself in the mirror and it’s hard. But then I think about my 32-year-old daughter Arielle’s friends. They’re all so amazing and driven by their own passions – much more so than we were 30 years ago. I see a lot of confidence in young women these days, so hopefully this will feed into areas such as [ageing] and changes things up. Our society is very shallow, but I think women evolve into their self-worth. My whole impulse in life at the moment is to try to be as authentic as I can. I wouldn’t have a facelift or even Botox. I’ve lived and I’m proud of that.
It goes back to that idea of what you resist persists. In Buddhism they talk about the law of least resistance. If you try to resist something it just gets worse and worse. If you try to make yourself look younger, you’ll change one thing and you’ll start noticing the next thing and the next thing. I’ve done this with my hair, so I know how that works! [It’s better] if you if you can just bow down and say, ‘Here I am.’
In the media, I’m finally seeing women who are older and glamorous, who love fashion. They don’t fall victim to ideas about beauty that are cruel. Society feeds the belief that “I’m not enough”. This is just not true, and I think women have to denounce it. I see this as the way forward.
I was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and moved to Sydney with my parents and younger brother when I was seven. I worked at a fashion magazine and had a jewellery shop with my mother. I left retail when I married and became pregnant. I had two boys and was a stay-at-home mum. Later, I worked in styling and was at Belle magazine for eight years. I then worked as a creative director for Jamie Durie.
Life changed when my sister-in-law was diagnosed with breast cancer and died within three months. I moved in with my brother, who had four kids, to help out and was working and going through menopause. I think that menopause is a chance to rethink your life – emotionally and spiritually. Dr Christiane Northrup writes that, during menopause, whatever you haven’t dealt with in the first chapter of your life visits you one more time. That felt true to me.
At different stages of my life, I grieve for different things. I’ve become more aware of the marked passage of time. I’ve grieved my children, as much as I’m overjoyed at the men they’ve become. In western cultures, we are in denial about how finite life is. We don’t realise that everything we know and love will one day be gone. I became a marriage celebrant because my youngest son got engaged and asked me if I would marry them. I love weddings but feel of value during funerals or end-of-life celebrations.
As I’ve aged, I’ve developed the courage to live my own truth. I’m happily single and don’t feel incomplete without a partner. Our lives are so different from the lives our grandmothers had. They were such capable women who never reached their full potential.
As I’ve gotten older, my sense of self has improved. When I was 30, I wanted to be 40. When I was 50 I wanted to be 60. I was always that person who knew intuitively that I wanted to be older.
I started modelling at 18 and, when I moved to Australia from London, I ran my own fashion PR company for 14 years. Six years ago I retrained as a counsellor. I am much happier because its more relevant to where I am right now. You get to your 40s and you want your life to have purpose and you also want to contribute. In your 20s you’re really not thinking about that. For me, the positives of getting older are endless. I’m a lot more confident in who I am. I’m less worried about what people think of me. There’s a stage in your life when you understand this intellectually. But then you reach a stage where you understand this in your heart.
I’ve never been married or had children. I did want them but circumstances didn’t work out and, at 44, I decided to stop trying because I didn’t want to be an old, tired mother. Society tells us that our value is tied to being mothers but what if it doesn’t happen? On one hand, I can choose how I spend my time and my energy, and my friends with children sometimes envy my life. But on the other, I went through a long process of grieving and letting go.
I never got the message from my mother or older sisters that getting older was a negative. As a woman of African descent, it’s reaffirmed that ageing is something to look forward to. There is a big cultural difference. Some of my clients are white women in their 60s and have had corporate careers. They have this deep dread about going grey, being invisible. They didn’t realise that there was an alternative way of thinking. There’s no point longing for what you can’t get back.
I started working when I was 15 and have spent a lot of my life working for community and government organisations. Ten years ago I studied a short tourism course. Now, I mostly do a lot of Welcome to Country ceremonies and lead walking tours of Redfern. My walking tours have grown their own legs! I haven’t applied for a job in many years. Women face discrimination when they are younger, when workplaces think you’re going to leave and have a baby. But when you’re older and your kids are grown up, you can work back or work on weekends and it’s not appreciated at all. It’s a huge problem.
I don’t have a problem with ageing. Yes, I find myself groaning when I get out of cars. But there are the benefits of wisdom as well. In my community, you’re respected when you get older. You also have less patience for crap. Last week I was at an event that played the national anthem and I refused to sing it. A non-Aboriginal woman came up to me and said that she had noticed. I said, “Oh, did you? I’m sorry you were disappointed.” When someone is rude to me I take it as racism rather than anything to do with my age.
My aunties are strong, community-minded people. My nan was also a big influence on my life. My eldest son went to live with her during his high school years. I found out that she was part of the stolen generation when I was 24 and so much about her made sense.
Now, I do a lot for my grandchildren. My granddaughter is two and a half and very attached. Next month I’m travelling with them to Fiji and it’s the first time I’ve been overseas. I’ve also really started looking after my health. My grandmothers were both 83 when they passed away and I want to hang around for my grandkids as long as I can.
I was born in Hong Kong and came to Sydney as a student in the 1960s. I studied social work at Sydney University and, when I had children, I studied law. After my husband and I got divorced it opened up new horizons. I had a colleague who recruited me as a candidate for the New South Wales Liberal party and I became Australia’s first Chinese-born member of parliament. But in the late 80s there was a wave of anti-Chinese sentiment and the party didn’t address it. I left and became an independent. I was very proud of myself.
My life is very active. I work with new Chinese migrants and am involved with organisations like the Rotary Club. But people of my age in the Chinese community often work all their lives and then stay at home to look after their grandchildren. They need a connection with the society but, because of language barriers, there’s nowhere outside the home for them to participate. Emotionally, Chinese women feel like their value is so diminished and their egos are very hurt. I’m a lawyer and speak well so am very privileged. If you’re an older woman who doesn’t speak English, you’ve had it.
I want to maintain the life that I have but I recently broke my leg, which jeopardises my activities. I used to stay up until midnight but now I have to go to bed at 10. My grandfather died at 102 so I have at least 25 long years to go! I travel a lot and soon I’m going to visit my family in Toronto. At the moment I can look after myself very well.
The government has set up an aged care commission for those that are sick. But older women like myself who are healthy also need attention. We need recreation and friendship too. Chinese families are very cohesive but aren’t looking after older women as much as they should be. My friends who are elderly don’t like to talk about it but I feel that we should assert our rights to enjoy life.
As an older woman, you become invisible in so many situations. When I was a young woman of 17, men looked at me. I always thought it was because I was so tall and awkward and gangly. I didn’t like it. Now, when I walk past a man my age, they don’t even know that I’m in the space. I feel it in my psyche. As a result I’ve stopped presenting. So many of my friends say I don’t do my makeup any more. It’s about feeling comfortable.
When I retired from my work as an art teacher, I experienced this sense of elation. But I did stop and ask, “What was it all about?” Now, my focus is on being a happy, productive human being who’s supportive of my daughter and loves her grandchildren. As I’ve gotten older, I enjoy my own company – when I was younger, I was always scratching to make sure every space in my life was full.
I’ve also learned the importance of being a good friend. One of my best friends is a man and he’s a champion of me and my art practice – he’s the first to encourage me and helps me hang my shows. [In the past] relationships with men seemed like they had to be about sex but, once I’ve established that this isn’t what it’s about, men relax. Maybe they dream that it might happen but for the most part it feels much easier.
I still think of myself as a sexual being. When we age, our teeth and skin dull and our eyes maybe don’t sparkle like they used to. But to me, sensuality is about trying to take care of yourself, be healthy, vibrant, involved, compassionate, grateful and whole. When I’m in a new group of people, being interesting is the real aphrodisiac. When men of all ages are engaged in conversation, [they are attracted] yet they wouldn’t notice if I walked right past them. I think they find me sensual because I’m colourful and have lots of layers.
I met my husband and married when I was 20. I worked for a year as a physiotherapist but realised that it wasn’t for me. For the next nine years I stayed home with my children. When they went to school I spent the next 20 years hopping from one unsatisfying job to another. At close to 50 I studied interior design. I knew straightaway it’s what I wanted to do and have been doing it for 10 years. Three of my friends started a new career and went to university in their late 40s and 50s. It’s a huge commitment but we’d all had children young. They were old enough for us to be able to start something different.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more independent of my family. Next week I’m spending a week on my own overseas, which I would never have done in my 20s. At the same time, my body has changed. After menopause, I gained weight. My hair’s going grey. For me, that’s still important. I don’t do anything out of the ordinary, but I try to slow that process down as much as possible.
I’m not fit compared with how I was 15 years ago. I can’t go skiing like I used to and get a sore back if I play with my grandchildren. It’s scary having to go on medication when I’ve never had to take pills before. The mortality issue becomes a concern. In the past you were losing parents of friends or grandparents. Suddenly, very unfairly, you’re starting to lose friends. These things trouble me a lot more than how I look.
We need to rethink the roles available to older women for the good of humanity. Some of us go, “Oh, well. Nobody wants me. I’ll just sit at home and twiddle my thumbs,” and go through a terrible state of depression and anxiety. It’s not easy to take the steps you need to take to make yourself feel relevant. When women do it, we’re judged when, really, we’re just trying to carve our niche in the world.