Reflections on ageing

Baroness Greengross
Baroness Sally Greengross

Growing numbers of older people are making significant contributions to their families and communities – indeed to our country – and in the process they are dismantling ageist stereotypes about what it is to be ‘old’. No one epitomises this better than Baroness Sally Greengross, who has had a long and distinguished career supporting older people that she shows no sign of giving up, and who herself is joining the over-80s club this year.

Age UK is therefore delighted to announce that from 2016 we will host an annual Greengross Lecture in Sally’s honour. Our intention is that the Lecture will champion later life and the person or people who have made a really big difference – a fitting tribute we hope to all that Sally has done and continues to do.

We were delighted that Angela Rippon gave the inaugural Greengross lecture at our London offices last week. It was an excellent, entertaining and thought-provoking run through Angela’s experience and feelings about getting older. Here’s what she said:

Just over twenty years ago, when I was 50, I had an interesting meeting with a BBC executive.  He told me “Angela – you have had your day.  Accept that it’s time to make way for the younger women coming up behind you”. Well 22 years later I am still here, still making programmes for the BBC, with commissions for at least another two years work ahead of me!

So in this, my seventh decade, I see life as a wonderful gift, to be measured in attitude and achievements, and not in years.

A time to savour the joys, the challenges, the responsibilities and the rewards of age.

Yes there is joy in growing older. There is such obvious joy in watching our children  grow ,– taking pride in their achievements,  And knowing we are there for them – when they need us.

We will all have made friends over the years to add to our family of those people who are important to us, and whose lives we enjoy sharing.  We may outlive some of them – but the joy of those memories and their friendship will last for ever

Joy – and gratitude too – for waking up every morning and knowing that we’re alive and have another 24 hours on this earth. Plus, especially for me, the sheer bloody minded joy of being able to prove that executive wrong.

And so to the challenges that come with age and they are many, because there is of course a downside to growing old. The shadow of diabetes, a stroke, heart disease, arthritis hangs over so many of us.  Cancer is indiscriminate, and the disease most people over 50 fear is dementia.

So the challenge is – to beat the system.  To recognise that right now, in the 21st century – there is so much we can do to help ourselves stay fit and well in our advancing years.

And most importantly – recognise that it is never too late to start. Any physical or mental exercise at any age will make a difference to your health and wellbeing and help you to live a longer, fitter life.

So what of our Responsibilities.

On our journey through the decades we will have gathered both knowledge and experience and hopefully a degree of self-confidence. Qualities that should help us to recognise and support those more vulnerable members of society who might need a helping hand.

There are some pretty obvious things attached to that word.  The responsibility that many, mainly women, take on for looking after elderly relatives or partners.

But let’s think of the responsibilities we have beyond those of a domestic nature.

By recognising that what age has given us is the knowledge, the time and the experience to leave the world a better place for those generations that come after us. Just think of how much we have to give by the time we reach 60 and beyond.

Because I really do believe that the great gift my generation can give to society is to use the combined power of our age and experience to influence outcomes in a whole range of situations. The woman after whom these lectures are named – Baroness Sally Greengross is the living personification of that ideal.

But that ultimately brings me to my final headline – the rewards of accumulated age.

Quite simply, it gives us the freedom to say – I have earnt the right to be myself.

Not to be dictated to by social, or family expectations.   The right to walk away from the narrow minded, – the small minded.  To embrace new horizons, to grow old disgracefully rather than gracefully.   And revel in the democratic right to please ourselves.

Now that I am 72 – who knows how many years I have left in which to make every day count. To some, this would be a time to ease gently towards infinity. Not for me. Nor for a growing number of my generation.

The American comedian George Carlin said “Life’s journey is not to arrive at the grave safely in a well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, totally worn out with a glass of champagne in one hand shouting “wow – that was one hell of a ride “

I would quite like that as an epitaph.


Author: Age UK

Age UK is dedicated to helping everyone make the most of later life. In the UK we help more than 7 million older people each year by providing advice, combating loneliness and enabling independence. Locally, we work as part of a network of independent charities which includes Age UK, Age Cymru, Age NI and Age Scotland and over 150 local Age UK partners in England and Wales.

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