My husband's Cousin Jane swept into town this week. She landed just in time. I've been feeling vaguely sorry for myself because I'm about to turn 60. But Jane is 80, and life is good. Men adore her. She travels everywhere. She has a farmhouse in France (which she drives to from her home in London). Every other weekend, she gets behind the wheel of her little car and zooms over to the other side of England to visit her gentleman companion, Robin. To celebrate her 80th birthday, she took her four children, their spouses, her six grandchildren, and Robin to Barbados. Unlike me, she never seems to suffer from jet lag.
"What's your secret?" I asked her over a cup of tea. She laughed, and said she was just lucky.
It's easy to explain why I'm so interested in Jane. Before long, I'll be 80, too, and I'd like to know what the next two decades might be like. After all, I'm closer to her in age than I am to the brilliant new reporter who sits a few feet away.
I'm discovering the difference between turning 50 and turning 60, and it's not the extra wrinkles in your neck. At 50, you're still in mid-career, your parents are probably still around, and you can't imagine any other life. You figure the next decade will be pretty much like the last one. At 60, you know it won't. Time is getting limited, and 70 is next.
We all know that 60 is no longer the start of the long march toward decay and decline. At 60, my friends and I are more or less (okay, less) as strong and healthy as we ever were. The truth is. we still feel 40 (okay, almost). The word "seniors" strikes us as ridiculous, and yet we don't have any other word for the stage of life we've reached. Late middle age? Young old age? Mature adulthood?
But the Zoomer-ization of our age and stage (whatever it is) is as false as the idea that it's all downhill from now on. Who dreams up those ridiculous seniors' lifestyle condo ads, with their debonair grey-haired men (no man shortage here!) in ascots? In Zoomer-land, bizarrely youthful-looking older couples are either gliding around the ballroom floor or cavorting in the hot tub. They are carefree! Life is fun! Retirement, it's implied, is a lot like adolescence, only with much more money and much less angst.
But later life is not always fun. When Jane was 63, her beloved husband died a painful death from cancer. "Nothing more dreadful than that will ever happen to me again," she says now. Enduring the worst has given her a certain philosophical resilience. In fact, her subsequent love life is the stuff of family legend. In her late 60s, she took up with a man the family calls the Swedish Count. He had a castle. He was simple but good-natured, and also rich. After he died, she took up with her current partner, a childhood friend who had developed an unrequited crush on her when she was 17. Nearly 60 years later, after his own wife had died, he hired a private detective to track her down.
"What is your appeal to men?" I asked Jane.
"I suppose I make life interesting and comfortable for them," she said. "Also, I cook." But she has no interest in living with a man full time. "After 40 years of marriage, my life was completely merged with my husband's," she says. "I like being my own person now." Jane's little house in London is tall and narrow, with four flights of stairs, and she is very energetic. She had always regretted not going to university. So she went back to school and got a degree in medieval history when she was 73.
Talking to Jane gives me faith that life will stay interesting and rewarding - even romantic - for many years to come (especially if I take up cooking again). It also turns out that there are surprising upsides to aging. For instance, my husband's faults seem far less horrible and aggravating than they used to be. He's improved. He says I've improved, too. We can't remember where we put the car keys, but we've stopped fighting about it.
We are normal. Psychologists have discovered that people's marriages get markedly better as they age. Couples grow more agreeable and affectionate. The old conflicts seem to fade away, and they don't fight so much. Even couples who've been bitterly unhappy seem to outlive their mutual dissatisfaction.
As author Maggie Scarf explains in her smart book September Songs, much of this has to do with neuroscience. As the brain ages, there's significant neuron loss in the area of the brain that's involved with states of anger and aggression. As a result, older adults show a marked improvement in emotional control. Sometimes, this is known as wisdom.
The paradox of aging is that, as people get older, they become happier and more optimistic. This seems counterintuitive. But now, I'm learning that it's true. Like many women, for example, I've spent most of my adult life in relentless battle with my inner critic - that nasty little voice that tells you you're not good enough. And then, not long ago, it just went away for good. It's impossible to describe how thoroughly delightful this is.
Jane is currently studying the historical period between 700 AD and the Norman Invasion, and is planning her next trip. Her life is packed with things she likes to do and people she likes to see. She's determined to make the most of it, because time really is limited now. When you're only 60, she tells me crisply, you still have a lot to look forward to. "When you're 80, you know what's going to happen next."
I hear her message loud and clear. I'm going to stop moping, throw a party, and get on with it.