I’m 77 and consider myself middle-aged

Jan: 'I want to stay as fit as I can, while also enjoying cake, crisps and red wine'
Jan: 'I want to stay as fit as I can, while also enjoying cake, crisps and red wine' - Tony Buckingham

When I was 30, I wrote a piece for She magazine which began: “Well, it’s all down to personality, now the looks have gone…” Little did I know that 47 years later, I would truly believe that I still have a lot more living to do – and that I’ve also got the energy to enjoy it – so I completely relate to the recent survey which claims that the older we get, our perception of when ‘old age’ begins gets higher.

Interestingly, women, on average, believe old age starts two years later than men think it does. At 65, modern women believe old age kicks in at about 76, compared to men’s belief that it’s 74. “Age is just a number” is a truism and, while I hate birthday cards with numbers on them, I celebrate the fact that I share my birth year with Charlotte Rampling, Diane Keaton, Susan Sarandon, Cher and Dame Joanna Lumley – and we’re all still working!

Indeed, I wrote my Radio 4 comedy series, Conversations From A Long Marriage, especially for Joanna, because I was tired of the depiction of older women in the media as in a care home or a coma, bitchy ex-wives or ditsy nanas, patronised by the whole family. Joanna epitomised how we all want to grow older – smart, funny, fit… and absolutely fabulous. Joanna often tells me “I’ve never been busier” and I have to say neither have I.

Also, I don’t think I’ve ever been more active, except perhaps in my school days. Passing my 11-plus, I went to one of the best grammar schools in the country. Academically, I disappointed but I was thrilled to become games captain at Tiffin Girls’ School and was never seen without a netball or a hockey stick.

In the 1970s as a young mother, I was heaving around pushchairs and toddlers and played squash, which was popular and fashionable at the time. But throughout my life, I’ve always loved swimming and, having moved to the Suffolk coast 11 years ago, I now start every day of the year with a swim in the North Sea (yes, it’s cold, no, we don’t wear wetsuits and yes, we probably are certifiably barmy). I do a quick spurt of tai chi on the beach, walk my English setter dog and yesterday, I went to a Pilates class, where the young and flexible seem pretty impressed with the core strength of us senior railcard holders.

Jan Etherington Latitude
Jan (far right) with her family at Latitude Festival in 2018

The only health app I have on my phone is a step tracker. I’m certainly no gym bunny, aspiring triathlete or neoprene fitness pundit, the kind who sobs uncontrollably if they don’t hit 10,000 steps a day and boasts of a “regime” which includes with two figs and an almond for breakfast, a fast from Tuesday to Friday, a 10-kilometre run every morning and in which a “treat” is a small white wine at Christmas.

Yes, I want to stay as fit as I can, while also enjoying cake, crisps and red wine.

I like the age I am. No, I don’t want to stay “young” and I’ve never had “work” done. I don’t even dye my hair. But as you get older, it helps to keep moving, if you can, which not only keeps you in good shape but makes your body stronger.

My mother was an excellent role model for her four daughters. She joined the Women’s League of Health and Beauty, a mass fitness movement that was founded in the 1930s. I still have a film of my mum and hundreds of other women, performing a dance routine to music in Albert Hall in the 1950s.

Of course I’m very aware that, while genes can play a major part in good health, there is also an element of chance to staying well, in later life. I’m sure we’ve all lost friends, over the years, who led fit and healthy lives but were side-swiped by the heartbreaking randomness of a life limiting illness, or a serious accident.

In fact, very close to home, my lovely husband, Gavin, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2019 and now, I have gradually gone from being a wife and writing partner with a strong, vibrant, funny partner, to becoming his carer. This is a responsibility that has made me even more aware of the need for me to stay healthy. I have a blood pressure monitor and regular health checks, I’m not on any medication and I’m forever grateful that I have only ever been in hospital to give birth to my son and daughter.

Jan with her husband Gavin in 2018
Jan with her husband Gavin in 2018 - Andrew Crowley

Nurturing friendships, retaining your curiosity and certainly your sense of humour are essential as we age. Some say that older women feel invisible and are either ignored or patronised. Recently, I went with my 90-year-old artist friend to buy her some new trousers. The sales girl looked at us and asked: “Are we having a nice day out, ladies? Off for a cup of tea and some cake?”

My friend was calm but steely. “No. I’m going back to my studio to finish my painting for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and Jan is off to write a Comment page for The Telegraph.”

As you get older, there’s a plethora of advice on food, fitness – and especially, fashion. Should you go sleeveless after 50? Wear a bikini? Are you too old for jeans? Oh, stop it! I’ve never suited a pleated skirt but that’s as far as I go in fashion no-nos. Wear what makes you feel good. We’ve lived long enough to follow the advice of Mama Cass Elliott and make our own kind of music.

Talking of which, as a former music journalist, I’m heading for the Latitude Festival here in Suffolk in July. Yes, I will be dancing in front of the stage to Duran Duran and Rick Astley. But I won’t be wearing a pleated skirt.

All five series of Jan Etherington’s comedy, Conversations from a Long Marriage, are available on BBC Sounds


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