How self-care saved my life

Eimear O'Hagan

Who's looking after you? Eimear O’Hagan meets the over-60s taking matters into their own hands and proving that self-care could be the key to happiness in later life.

Wellbeing is everything

woman holding heart

The 60 candles on the cake have been blown out, the free bus pass has been applied for, and you’re getting used to your new ‘pensioner’ title. So what now?

You may not realise it, but you’re at a crossroads. You can slide into your later years, resigning yourself to an armchair, and a loss of autonomy and wellbeing, as previous generations did. 

Or, more excitingly, you can view this as a new chapter in your life, and seize the opportunity to invest in yourself after years of dedicating your time to family and career.

Practice ‘self-care’—taking control of your own physical and mental wellbeing—and these years could be the best of your life. According to Dr Laurence Gerlis, of independent GP practice same day doctor, self-care is more important than ever before.

“We have an increasingly expanding older population, as well as a National Health Service under pressure. It is vital people do everything they can to care for their own wellbeing. In the past there’s been a culture of over-reliance on the NHS and a lack of personal responsibility; an assumption a doctor can always cure what’s gone wrong. 

“But as we get older it can be harder to fix our bodies, which is why we should do everything in power to look after ourselves, in a bid to minimise age-related problems.”

 

But what exactly is self-care?

 “It’s a very individual concept,” says Dr Gerlin. “There’s no ‘prescription’ for it as it will vary from person to person what makes them feel physically well, happy and mentally stimulated. For one person it could be taking up walking or swimming, for the next it’s French lessons or a book club.

“In general, it’s about keeping active, maintaining social networks and feeling mentally well, all of which have a very beneficial effect on one’s overall wellbeing. And regardless of your age, it’s never too early or late, to begin.”

Professor James Goodwin, Chief Scientist at Age UK, agrees that the benefits of self-care are far reaching.

“We know the risk of illness rises as we age but with effective self-care, health conditions can be managed well so they don’t prevent people from leading full and independent lives, in other words we can age healthily.

“Social isolation can have a dramatic effect on health. In fact, recent scientific research has discovered that loneliness is as bad for us as being clinically obese, or being an alcoholic. So taking up activities or hobbies which lead to interaction with other people, has a knock on effect on physical wellbeing.

“Importantly, feeling in control of your health and wellbeing, participating in society and remaining autonomous boosts self-esteem and confidence.”

The benefits are clear, but will this generation of retirees buy into the concept of self-care? Dr Gerlis believes so.

“This age group have lived very full lives. Some have come through the war, they have had fulfilling careers, travelled and they want a ‘good’ retirement. They’re aspirational and want these years to be full and interesting, and they know that to enjoy and make the most of them, they must invest in their physical and mental health.”

Here we meet four over-60s who are reaping the rewards of self-care…

 

Anthea Parker, 60


Retired teacher Anthea lives in Cardiff

When my husband Ian died in December 2014, ten days after being diagnosed with cancer, I was devastated. He was just 54. After raising our two daughters, now in their twenties, we’d planned to retire together and live these years to the fullest.

At first, the thought of spending the next twenty years of my life, maybe longer, without him left me feeling lost. I had dark days when I didn’t want to get out of bed. I realise now I was in deep shock having lost him so quickly. But as time passed, it began to dawn on me that life is so precious, and none of us can predict what’s around the corner. 

I realised I could sit at home and grieve for Ian, or I could get out there and make the most of every moment of my life. Three months after he died a friend mentioned a choir run by the charity Tenovus Cancer Care, which was for anyone affected by cancer. I’ve always loved to sing so was intrigued and agreed to go along to a rehearsal. That decision really has changed my life. 

We rehearse once a week and perform concerts to fundraise for the charity. We sing uplifting songs like “You’ve Got A Friend” and “Lean On Me”; songs which really resonate with all of us.

Not only have I made a whole new friendship circle, who I spend time without with the choir, but I leave rehearsals feeling so positive, it’s been fantastic for my mental wellbeing.

After a demanding career in education, I relish having a focus in my retirement years. I fundraise for the charity too, including trekking to Machu Picchu, where I scattered some of Ian’s ashes. I know Ian would approve of my decision to look after myself. 

Living a good life, and finding ways to enjoy my retirement, is the best tribute I can pay him.

 

Mick Tague, 68


Mick is a retired carpenter. He lives in Camden, North London

Twice a week I leave my home in the morning with a spring in my step, excited at the prospect of the day ahead at The Camden Town Shed.

There, I’ll spend my time working on my latest carpentry project, helping other members with theirs, and enjoying a cuppa and a blether with other blokes my age. Discovering a new social outlet, and a chance to indulge my love of woodwork, has boosted my quality of life and improved my overall health.

In August 2010, I was diagnosed with throat cancer and had to have radiotherapy and chemotherapy. Until then I’d been a heavy smoker and drinker, and most of my social life revolved around my local pub and drinking buddies. My consultant told me if I didn’t dramatically change my lifestyle, I was wasting my time having treatment.

I stopped drinking and smoking, drifted away from unhealthy friendships, and had to retire. I’m single and live alone, many miles from my grown up son, and quickly became isolated. I began to suffer from bouts of depression. I felt that life was passing me by, but didn’t know what to do about it.

My son bought me a computer and encouraged me to look into activities in my area, to get me out of the house. At first I was reluctant, I’m a youthful 60-something at heart and the idea of OAP clubs just didn’t appeal.

Then I came across The Shed. It’s a club for older men and women, where you can work on woodwork projects and socialise. You pay as much as you can afford for materials. I’ve been going twice a week for three years and it’s made such a difference to my sense of wellbeing.

Being busy, and feeling connected with society again, has boosted my self-esteem. I have new friends to confide in if I feel worried about something, and teaching other members has given me my self-confidence back.

It’s kept me away from my old bad habits and haunts, which has helped my body recover from cancer. I feel better now than I have in years. If I hadn’t joined The Shed, I’d be floating unhappily through my retirement.

 

John Ormond, 71


John is a semi-retired company director. He lives in Fleetwood, Lancashire

When I told my mother, who passed away earlier this year in her nineties, that I was taking up marathon running at the age of sixty, she thought I was crazy. While I saw it as a way of maintaining my physical health as I entered my older years, and a mental focus as I began to wind down my career, she was concerned I was too old. 

I suppose that just highlights how my generation have come to understand the value of self-care, compared to our parents who believed later life inevitably meant a less active life. I took up running in my mid-fifties after a bout of ill health. I realised I needed to look after myself better so started jogging on the seafront near my home, and on a treadmill in the gym.

When I was 59 I saw a 93-year-old being interviewed on TV, who was running the London Marathon and I felt inspired. With my sixties around the corner, I didn’t want to sit back and let my health decline when I’d worked hard to get fit, nor did I want time to pass aimlessly. I wanted to set myself goals. I decided if a 93-year-old could run a marathon, so could I!

Since then I’ve run twelve marathons, one a year, including London, Manchester and Stratford, raising around £20,000 for the charity Action Aid in the process.

The physical benefits have been tremendous. I suffer from arthritis and asthma but because I am fit and strong I can manage the conditions and they don’t stop me leading a normal life. And with a marathon to train for every year, I am never bored. I love having a goal to work towards.

My wife Pat, 62, three children and six grandchildren, are very supportive and proud of me. I don’t just want to exist in my older years, I want to live a full and active life, and look after my body and health.

 

Ilona Johnson-Gibbs, 75


Ilona is a fine art dealer. She lives in Stow on the Wold, Gloucestershire

Two years ago I fell backwards down a flight of stairs, suffering a concussion and bruising.  Although I never give much thought to my age, and I’m not afraid of growing old, it led me to think that perhaps I needed to spend some time strengthening my body, having done no exercise for over 50 years.

As a child, I took ballet lessons and dreamed of becoming a professional ballerina. However, my father felt it wasn’t a stable career and I stopped dancing in my early teens, although I never forgot my love of ballet.

I knew ballet could help with my balance and strength but didn’t know if any teacher would agree to take me on in my seventies. I contacted the Royal Academy of Dance, who put me in touch with a teacher in my area for an assessment.

Nervously, I arrived at the class and was elated when I realised my body still remembered how to move to the music, after so many years. The teacher said I was a natural, which was lovely to hear after so long.

Now I attend a class three times a week, as well as a monthly masterclass. I’m the oldest in the class—I’m what’s known as a ‘silver swan’—dancing alongside women in their mid-twenties and upwards. They tell me I’m an inspiration to them, still dancing in my seventies.

Physically I feel stronger, my posture has improved and the symptoms of the arthritis I have in my feet have lessened greatly. My body has definitely benefitted from my re-acquaintance with ballet. And mentally it gives me a great sense of tranquillity and wellbeing.

I’ve always been a ‘do-er’, someone who has enjoyed fresh challenges, and ballet gives me that feeling of working towards new achievements. For example, I’m training to dance ‘en pointe’, meaning on the tips of my toes. I treat my classes like work, and I enjoy the sense of satisfaction that comes with them.

A generation ago people expected to grow old and see their sense of purpose, and their independence, decline accordingly. Now age is just a number. It shouldn’t stop anyone living life to the full and looking after themselves.

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