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Author Sheila O'Flanagan: 'I'm more determined than ever to live life on my own terms'

Ahead of Madonna entering her seventh decade today, author Sheila O'Flanagan reflects on the milestone and considers whether it really marks a new era for women

A few weeks ago I tweeted about a novel I was reading in which a 60-year-old character was described as elderly and infirm. Having reached that milestone myself a few months earlier, I was outraged that anyone would think a woman in her 60s was either of these things.

The equally outraged responses on my timeline from women in their 60s (and older) only reinforced my view that a person's age matters more to other people than to themselves.

I'm pretty sure Madonna, who turns 60 today, wouldn't thank you for calling her elderly. Or infirm.

Many of my closest friends are straddling that sixth decade and all of us are still wondering when we'll feel like the grown-ups in the room. Inside, we're the same people we were in our 20s, now with some added wisdom and slightly more battle-hardened bodies.

Reaching a milestone birthday naturally gives you cause to reflect, especially when you realise that there are more years behind you than ahead of you.

But instead of filling me with regret for times past (other than that I didn't wear shorter, tighter dresses at an age when I might have looked good in them) growing older has allowed me to look forward with a greater confidence in my own ability to deal with the ups and downs of everyday living without turning every moment of adversity into the crisis it might have been when I was younger.

I'm better able to sort out the important things from what doesn't matter very much and make decisions without fear of being judged by other people. And that has made me a more content person, although not in any way less driven.

I still have goals in my life, places I want to go and things I want to do. But I haven't quite come to terms with the fact I don't have unlimited time in which to do them.

One of the shocks of turning 60 was to realise that I'm too old to apply for interesting jobs in new industries and that my childhood dream of being an astronaut will never actually be fulfilled.

In the past, hitting your 60s meant looking forward to retirement not looking for work. This is no longer an automatic choice for many of us, but those who do leave paid work behind are generally more eager to embrace new experiences than sit in front of the TV in the afternoon and watch ads for stairlifts in between reruns of Murder, She Wrote.

In our youth-fixated world where people crave instant success, it's worth remembering that there are many people who didn't achieve their potential until after they celebrated their 60th birthday.

When I was in my 30s and wondering if there was the faintest possible chance I'd ever be a published writer, I was inspired by the wonderful Mary Wesley, whose first novel for adults was published when she was 71, and her final one when she was 85.

There's no law that says you have to be an ambitious 60-year-old, although studies have shown that older workers perform more consistently over time than their younger colleagues.

This is probably because that wealth of learned experience has given us the ability to find more than one solution to a problem. And the ability to listen as well as to talk.

One of the more difficult aspects of getting older is the moment when you glimpse yourself in a mirror and wonder who the person looking back at you is. I'm not 20 anymore and I don't want to look like I'm 20, but I'd still like to see a vestige of the person I imagine as me in my reflection. The beauty industry knows this and has subtly shifted its marketing message from 'regaining your youth' to 'loving the skin you're in'.

I do my best with what I've got but it's hard to know if anything makes an appreciable difference when every day brings a new fine line.

However, I'm a big believer that being in charge of our own hair colour is one of the most empowering things that's happened to women this century and, even though 2018 was the year grey hair became a trend on the catwalks and off, I'm sticking with brunette for now. It's who I am.

The most important part of my older life is doing the things I've always done. I play competitive badminton and sometimes still win against people 20 or more years younger than me. But I don't bother with the training anymore. I know I'm not going to improve.

If there's one thing that continually jolts me as I begin life in my seventh decade, though, it's the fact that whenever I get on a bus or a train, most of the other passengers are younger than me. I spend most of the journey estimating their ages and then figuring out what I was doing in the year they were born. I think of all the things I lived through that would be history to them and it's both terrifying and humbling.

I remember as a child dismissing my mother's talk of the Second World War as something that's 'over now' without appreciating that she actually lived through it, that those headlines were a part of her life in the way that the first moon landing is a part of mine.

I've become more reflective as I've gotten older, less judgemental and more grateful for the good things that have happened to me, as well as more philosophical about the bad.

I'm conscious that it takes me longer to recover from a badminton match or a late night. I'm conscious that I need to take more care of my body. I'm conscious that nothing lasts forever.

But I'm also very aware that, in my 60s, I'm more able and more determined to live life on my own terms than ever before.

Just don't call me elderly. Or infirm.

The Hideaway by Sheila O'Flanagan is published in trade paperback by Headline and is out now

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