Is it automatically better to be young?

Meryl Streep in a scene from "Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again."

Meryl Streep in a scene from “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.”

My mother was in her late 50s when she died, meaning that the joys of spending time with adult children, of which she had six, and watching her grandchildren grow up, were cruelly robbed from her much too soon. She never lived to enjoy her twilight years. Her death was a wake-up call for me. I was 37 at the time, charging full-pelt through a jam-packed life of work as a television screenwriter while raising my own four children. Not a minute went unfilled, nor an hour of the day unplanned.

My three sons and one daughter are close together in age, so at one chaotic stage in my 30s I had four children all under six. To say it was full-on is an understatement.

That time was wonderful, yes, but challenging also. Added to the myriad responsibilities of child-rearing, my partner and I home-educated our brood for a while, a process that while immensely rewarding was also highly time-consuming.

To anyone who's ever juggled both children and career, the frenetic pace of life in one's 30s and 40s will be a familiar experience. It's a permanent balancing act in which most of your focus is simply on surviving, as great as the joys of parenting may be. For me, these joys were immense, but it's hard not to lose sight of your personal needs when life is all about other people's.

In the years that followed my mother's death, however, something shifted for me. What, I asked myself, were my priorities going forward? What did I want to do with the rest of my life, and when was I going to start? Ageing, I realised, could mean what I wanted it to mean. I didn't have to follow a set path.

Everywhere we look, there are people over 60 enjoying fulfilling and exciting lives: I'm not just talking about the likes of Kate Bush (60 yesterday), Madonna (celebrating the same milestone in a couple of weeks) or 69-year-old Meryl Streep. I'm talking about the legions of baby boomers who are happily jetting off to Thailand and elsewhere, making the most of their retirement to do what they really want to do, free of the peer pressure to conform to rules set by others.

The idea came from an article I chanced upon one day: the subject was what women were and were not permitted to wear, based on their age and their shape.

According to these arbitrary rules, wearing mini skirts beyond the age of 25, bikinis after 35, long hair over 40 and leather trousers for anyone who wasn't 6ft tall and a size eight were all, inexplicably, forbidden.

Yet who, I wondered, makes up these rules? Are there people who actually feel bound by them? In my experience, the older I got, the less inclined I felt to be dictated to.

I am now 63, and the thought of reading up on what I should or should not be doing at this age makes me crack up. In fact, I've probably spent the last decade and a bit trying out stuff that some people have thought a bit mad for someone in their 50s.

At 50, I learned how to snowboard; at 57, I started running half-marathons. My thinking was not so much "Should I really be doing this at my age?", rather, "If I don't do this now, then when will I?" The children were older by this point, and no longer was I constantly ferrying them to football training or band practice.

When you decide to reclaim some time for yourself, it does take some getting used to. But doing so, for me, was vital. Perhaps it's a generational thing: when my grandparents hit 60, they went off on coach tours, but they hadn't much clue what to do with themselves after retirement. They didn't keep physically fit, so when they entered their seventh decade they really did seem like old people. Indeed, to my 10-year-old self, they appeared positively ancient.

A lot has changed since then, but what matters to me is not whether you can pass for just 40 or 50 at this age, but what your quality of life is. At 63, I'm a lot less bothered about conforming – or not – to expectations.

And I don't tend to fret too much over appearance either, because as you age your priorities change. You truly don't sweat the small stuff as much. In fact I have a simple rule: at the end of each day I ask myself whether it's been a good one or not.

For me, a good day is not one in which I've spent aeons of time gazing into the mirror, trying on different clothes or applying my make-up. Beyond staying fit and healthy to give me the energy I need for my work, the rest doesn't feel so important.

I'm aware that in this I'm quite lucky; I'm not an actor, and no one actually cares what a writer looks like. But for many people, the pressures to look and to dress the right way are now more intense than before. The obsession with appearance, in fact, has never been greater, and nor is it any longer restricted to just women.

The scrutiny young people now apply to their appearances is extreme when compared with 20 years ago even, while in my own teenage years we hardly ever even took photos. Now our children stare at endless images of lives and bodies that seem perfect. Everyone thinks someone else has these things, and feels that they have to live up to them. None of which seems to me all that healthy.

In Age Before Beauty, we ask the question: is it automatically better to be young? My own answer to this is that I'm not convinced.

As told to Rosa Silverman

The Daily Telegraph, London

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