How to Age Well: Finding Joy in Retirement
A Longer Life
It’s a fact that longevity is increasing globally, and people in their 80s, 90s and even centenarians are increasing at the fastest rate. This is something to celebrate.
But extra years are not necessarily a bonus, particularly if living in poor health or in other challenging circumstances. Unfortunately, the reasons which affect how well we age are often outside our control, such as financial circumstances or our genes.
I had to retire at 59 due to ill health, earlier than I wanted or planned. I found it tough, coping with feeling unwell, as well as having lost a job I loved, my purpose, identity, colleagues…and my salary! The (hopefully) decades ahead did not feel much like a bonus at that point.
And, once retired, I discovered that others had also found the transition difficult. A slight conspiracy of silence exists about retirement, rather like parenthood. You have to be in the ‘club’ to hear fellow members’ experiences and feelings of how this life change can impact your life - and it’s not always positive, at least to start with.
But gradually, my health improved, I discovered various exciting interests and ventures, and made new friends. I came to realise I was blessed with the time, freedom, (good enough) health, sufficient income and the ability to enjoy a whole new stage of life. I felt I was one of the lucky ones.
I’m now approaching 71 and have never felt happier.
“Ageing is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength" - Betty Friedan (1921-2006), activist and author of ‘The Fountain of Age'
The Good News? We’re All the Lucky Ones
To my surprise, I learned that older people are generally happier. It’s the phenomenon called ‘The U Curve of Happiness’.
“No ifs, no buts, well-being is U-shaped in age”.
And there’s further good news, as research has also shown that most of us can make a significant and positive difference to the quality of our lives by our actions, attitudes and behaviours.
“In the long run, we shape our lives, and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make our ultimately our own responsibility” - Eleanor Roosevelt
What follows is a taster of what I’ve discovered since retiring 11 years ago, not only from my personal experience, but also from reading a stack of books and research, and listening to a great many people, older and far wiser than me.
I hope one or two things will be useful, resonate, or be of interest, or may just confirm what you know and are doing already.
How to Age Well - Follow These Steps
“The secret to living well and longer is to eat half, walk double, laugh triple and love without measure” - Tibetan proverb
Sadly, there is no ‘silver bullet’ to ageing well, but I believe there are some key components, or steps, to achieving a happier, healthier and longer life.
Each of these steps could be the subject of its own article, but here is a short summary of each, accompanied by a few practical tips.
Step 1: Move.
Not your home - your body! This is probably the most important step and it relates to physical activity, “the miracle cure” according to the NHS. Regular physical activity lowers the risk of early death by up to 30% and reduces the risk of many major illnesses including some cancers, heart disease, stroke and dementia. Its multiple other benefits include increasing wellbeing and energy, preventing weight gain, reducing stress, anxiety and depression, and improving sleep.
“If exercise could be packaged in a pill, it would be the single most widely prescribed and beneficial medicine in the nation" - Dr Robert H Butler
- If you aren’t yet active, start by moving a bit more every day. Anything is better than nothing.
- You need various types of exercise to improve your fitness: aerobic for heart health and stamina (eg: brisk walking, swimming), muscle strengthening (eg: Pilates, yoga) and exercise that helps flexibility and balance, especially as we age. The global recommended guidelines are available here.
- Avoid sitting for long periods. Get up and move for a couple of minutes, every 20 - 30 minutes.
- There are helpful apps (such as the excellent NHS ‘Active 10’) or wearable monitoring devices (such as a Fitbit).
- Find an activity you enjoy or you won’t make it part of your daily life.
- And do see your doctor before exercising, if necessary.
“You can’t turn back the clock, but you can wind it up again" - Bonnie Prudden
Step 2. Eat a Healthy, Balanced Diet.
As well as being less active, our world is getting more overweight and obese. Obesity can reduce life expectancy by an average of 3-10 years and greatly increases the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes and other serious diseases. This costs our society billions every year.
“Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food” - Hippocrates
We need to eat healthily and maintain a healthy weight - being neither over- (nor under) weight. This means consuming the right foods, in the right quantities, for most of the time. We all need treats, and happily, dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa) and red wine, in moderation, are said to be good for you.
Most of us (me included!) could eat better and eat less. But in our modern world that’s hard, as there are so many opportunities to eat, portion sizes have grown, and unhealthy foods (which taste good and are often cheaper than healthier options) are widely available. But there’s a lot we can do, most of which I’m sure you already know.
- Follow the guidelines as far as possible
- Reduce your portion size - using a smaller plate/bowl may help.
- Eat mindfully, focusing on what you’re eating rather than the TV, smartphone or a book. You won’t realise what, or how much, you’re eating if you’re concentrating on something else.
- Eat slowly and stop eating when you could happily eat more, as it takes the brain about 20 minutes to register that you’re full.
"Life expectancy would grow by leaps and bounds if green vegetables smelled as good as bacon" - Doug Larson
Step 3. Find Your Purpose.
We all need something to live for, a reason for being (or ‘ikigai’) as the Japanese call it. A strong purpose and sense of direction is vital to our health, long-lasting wellbeing and even longevity. Many studies have shown purpose improves physical and mental health, providing greater resilience to diseases, such as Alzheimer’s.
“The afternoon of life is just as full of meaning as the morning: only, its meaning and purpose are different” - Carl Jung
What gives us a purpose varies from person to person and in the life of same person at different times. For many their purpose is their job, so keep working if you can and you enjoy it, perhaps working flexibly or for fewer hours leading up to retirement, if that’s possible. But purpose can come from an infinite variety of things, from being a grandparent, or helping others, to mastering a new skill.
“You are never too old to set another goal, or to dream a new dream” - Les Brown
- Goals are important at every stage of life. Take time to decide what you want, and how to achieve it. If necessary, seek inspiration from friends, perhaps a life coach or read biographies. "If you want a happy life, tie it to a goal" - Albert Einstein
- Make your goals SMART, an acronym for: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time bound.
- Find your passion and develop it - you probably already know what you really enjoy doing or always wanted to try. But if not, try a host of new things. Learn a new skill. For me this last decade, my passions have been dancing, volunteering, doing what I can to help others age better, and writing.
"A man will never grow old if he knows what he’s doing tomorrow and enjoys it" - Charles Aznavour
Step 4. Connect.
Social connections lie at the heart of wellbeing and health. Good relationships, that we can rely on, keep us happier, healthier and living longer. It is said that we are now suffering a ‘loneliness epidemic’ and, shockingly, lacking social connections is as damaging to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day
Although making, or sustaining, strong friendships can be difficult especially as we get older, happily there are various options for meeting new people or cherishing those friendships we already possess.
- Join group social, creative or physical activities, whether online or live. It helps meeting and chatting to others with a common interest. Like Mirthy!
- Volunteer. Help your local community. Many find this is a great way to connect with like-minded people, as well as feeling they are doing something worthwhile. (That purpose again).
- Be a good friend and proactive, keeping in touch with those you care about. There are now so many ways to connect - telephone, FaceTime, Skype, Zoom, WhatsApp, email, text, social media or even the old-fashioned, sadly dying, art of putting pen to paper.
“The best thing to hold on to in life, is each other” - Audrey Hepburn
How to Age Joyfully
This article is based on my book, published when I was 68. It is called ‘How to Age Joyfully: Eight Steps to a Happier, Fuller Life’ and has a Foreword by the inspirational role model, Dame Judi Dench. (Summersdale Publishers Ltd). The book has over 150 tips, 170 inspiring quotations, role models, my personal story and more. It is available in hardback, Kindle and Audiobook, from bookshops and online.
The wonderful charity Open Age, for people over 50, receives 50% of my royalties.
Author: Maggy Pigott CBE FRSA - a barrister, retired in 2011, after a career in the Civil Service. She now enjoys volunteering with a number of charities, writing, dancing, and having fun with friends and family.
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