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Canada Amplify: Longing for the emancipation of old age

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The author first started having "old-lady fantasies" when her mom retired.

Aimin Tang/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Lately, I’ve been indulging in an unexpected kind of fantasy.

Sometimes, I imagine I’m lying by a pool in the hot sun, devouring a book in a single go. Other times, I dream of wandering through a European city with my husband, or hiking in the mountains with my girlfriends. Sometimes – and these are the best times – I fantasize about having nothing to do at all, with days of sweet boredom spread before me like a buffet.

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No matter where these daydreams take me, the important thing is this: I am always old when I get there. Not old-old, mind you, but a hale and healthy 65 or so, with few responsibilities and even fewer @$%!s left to give.

I’m Kelly Grant, a health news reporter with The Globe and Mail. I am also the mom of three busy boys, ages 8, 6 and 3.

I started having these old-lady fantasies about two years ago, when my mom retired. She and my dad are now living their best lives. Mom paints. Dad golfs. They spend their winters in a Florida retirement community that sounds like a college campus without the exams or binge-drinking.

My in-laws, meanwhile, are in better shape in their 70s than I am at 39. They just booked a last-minute hike across England because, hey, why not? Being old rules.

On one level, I know my thirst for retirement living is just a longing for free time, a scarce commodity when you’re a full-time working mother. (I cooked up most of this essay in my head at a 7 a.m. hockey tryout last weekend.)

On a deeper level, my fantasies are about the more elusive brand of freedom that Mary Pipher illuminates in her new book, Women Rowing North: Navigating Life’s Currents and Flourishing as We Age, which I’ve been reading in 10-minute snatches before bed.

Pipher, a Nebraska psychologist, describes early on in her memoir how the locker-room atmosphere changed when she switched from the gym at the university where she taught to a gym geared toward seniors.

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In the university locker room, the twentysomething women seemed “stressed and unhappy” as they talked to one another about their weight, studies and relationships, while crouching to hide their bodies as they undressed.

“In my new locker room,” Pipher writes, “we older women walk around unselfconsciously naked or in utilitarian underclothes or swimsuits. Our bodies are saggy with plenty of stretch marks, wrinkles, and cellulite, but do we care? Not much.”

In an appearance on NPR’s Fresh Air, Pipher explained to host Terry Gross – who, at age 68, is still at the top of her professional game – why so many surveys and studies find that women in their 60s and 70s are the happiest demographic.

If healthy, these women enjoy some of the same freedoms of their youth, but with the wisdom to appreciate them. They’ve raised children, built careers and lost people they loved. They know that some things matter and some don’t – least of all saggy bottoms and stretch marks.

Some older women, armed with perspective and time after years in the domestic trenches, blossom creatively, as my colleague Elizabeth Renzetti wrote in a wonderful column about old-lady writers earlier this year. If Katherine Ashenburg can publish her first novel at 72, perhaps there’s hope for me yet.

Or maybe, with age, I’ll discover my rebellious side. The feminist icon Gloria Steinem, now 85, wrote back in 1983 that, “women may be the only group that grows more radical with age.” Right now, I’m hard-pressed to find the time to fight political injustice and smash the patriarchy. Just give me a couple of decades.

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I know how paradoxical my fantasies sound. We’re raised to fear old age. And is it any wonder? Much of what can come with aging isn’t exactly pleasurable.

When our looks fade and our sexual powers wane, we become invisible. We can expect to be ignored by bosses and trampled by younger colleagues. We can expect to be cast aside, like a worn-out pair of sneakers.

Is it weird that I want to be the old gym shoes? Not to me. How liberating it must be to care not a whit about your waist size or your clothes or your place on the career ladder. How emancipating it must be to think mostly of long marriages and cherished friendships, of books and travel and writing and grandchildren. How wonderful it must be to have the gift of time.

As I see it, there are only two problems with my old-lady reveries. The first is that I might not be fortunate enough to grow old in good health, or to grow old at all. The second is that I don’t want to wish away the middle years of my life, especially considering what delightful little puppies my sons are right now

If Mary Pipher or my mom were to read this, they’d probably tell me to savour this time in my life. If I were 65, I’d probably be wise enough to listen.

What else we’re reading

Ever optimistic that I’ll find more time to read, I always keep a few books on my bedside table. Right now, I’m interspersing my Mary Pipher with chapters of New Yorker staff writer Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland. Built around the stories of two women enmeshed in The Troubles – one a top IRA member, the other a widowed mother of 10 who disappeared during the conflict – the book reads so much like a thriller that I keep consulting Radden Keefe’s meticulous endnotes to reassure myself it’s not fiction. If you’re not ready to commit to the book, you can read The New Yorker story that birthed it. But really, get the book.

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