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Mary Johnston: Why I learned to love being in my 70s - I savour new experiences and know importance of seizing every day while I still can

Journalist Mary Johnston freely admits she's struggled with the ageing process but in this deeply personal and inspiring piece, which will resonate with many readers, she says she has learnt to see the positives

Mary Johnston at home in Belfast
Mary Johnston at home in Belfast
Meryl Streep
Mary and husband Pete
Mary with her daughter, TV presenter Emma-Louise Johnston
Mary Johnston in 1969
Mary having fun on holiday playing croquet

By Mary Johnston

Movie star Meryl Streep spoke recently about how proud she is to be still acting and representing "the old broads". She's enjoyed an outstanding career that included success in the movie version of Mamma Mia in 2008, which raked in more than $600m. I haven't seen the sequel, but not only is Meryl, who has just celebrated her 70th birthday, back in the role of Donna, she's joined in the remake by Cher who, at the age of 73, quite impossibly plays her mother!

I'm one of those "old broads" now that Meryl's happy to represent. The fabulous Meryl claims her daughters have helped her come to terms with getting older. She says she wasted years worrying about her looks, but is determined now to enjoy what's left.

I know the feeling and it's such a relief and indeed an inspiration to realise that even people from her Hollywood walk of life feel the frailties of age like all the rest of us.

If I'm being honest, part of me does think getting old is hard to handle and deserves the dread that sometimes accompanies it. Fading flowers that eventually become unrecognisable from how they were in their glory, fruit that withers and wrinkles and loses its usefulness... time to get rid of them. Those analogies have a habit of creeping into my mind, uninvited.

However, I try to convince myself that the positives outweigh the negatives and, well, the alternative. After all, nobody gets an option.

Like Meryl (I wish!), I think what's the point in worrying? Besides, who's looking at me anyway? And, yes, it's not easy to admit that it's not many these days. But then we all have our time and when you get to a certain stage, you have to accept that you've had yours, move on and get over it.

Keep the memory that you were once a stunner and turned heads to yourself. Refrain from bringing out the old photos because, believe me, nobody else cares.

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I was enjoying a girlie (I use the term loosely) lunch lately with a very sophisticated friend who's much younger. She was talking about a PR person and how, in her opinion, this woman, who's younger than me, should catch herself on and stop attending functions best suited to young fashionistas. Not for one minute did she intend any malice, but it set me thinking and while I'll not be joining the bingo set any time soon, I reckon it's time, like the royals, to be more selective with the invitations.

My time is too precious to waste now. Schmoozing at social functions with people I didn't really know or particularly want to know is most definitely a thing of the past. Time spent with my family and grandkids is sacrosanct. I am very fortunate to have them all around me except for my own beautiful youngest daughter who lives in Sydney. It saddens me that we're both missing each other but thank heavens for WhatsApp! Waking up every three hours for bottle feeds for my newest grandson when I get to have him stay over brings me immense happiness.

One of the positives of ageing for me has been the driving desire and ability to travel. I'm married to a man who doesn't fly. He swore, after a bit of a dodgy flight back from Spain in the Seventies, that he'd never set foot inside a plane again and he hasn't. When our kids were young, we became Francophiles, travelling for years by ferry from Rosslare to Cherbourg or Le Havre en route to various mobile home sites. I enjoy France even if I don't buy into the myth that their food is better than ours. Based on decades of eating out in Ireland, we beat the French eating out experience hands down, but it's a lovely place for memory-making family holidays.

Although I'm fortunate to have close friends with whom I could go on holiday, I regularly opt for solo travel. Some friends find that very odd. Because most package deals are based on two people and priced accordingly, I book flights and accommodation separately online and that way I can spend anything from a few days, rather than the obligatory seven in a package holiday, to a month if I fancy it. I'm not sure I'd have done this when I was younger. I remember reading an article years ago about how women start to become invisible after 50. I found that hard to imagine up until my 60s, but since it's happened, I find it liberating in ways.

Unlike one of my pals, I haven't yet embraced the idea of being treated like a little old lady. She says to me: "It's great when your hair's grey. People offer to help me with my shopping or with my case when I'm travelling."

She's joined the WI and lots of other groups and she volunteers. All very worthy, but not for me.

Another friend goes to the gym five days a week for three hours a day and considers Zumba too easy. She has a young outlook and retains her youthful figure. I'm far from having retained my girly physique, but I am grateful to still have plenty of stamina and to enjoy good health. I've gone on several cruises alone, something I'd have considered weird when I was younger.

I try to get to France every year, maybe a city break to Paris or a sunshine trip to the Cote d'Azur and I've found the right place for me in a little village within walking distance of a sandy beach. Waiting until early evening when it's almost deserted allows me to swim in the by then, tepid waters of the Mediterranean, toute seule. This gives me almost as much pleasure as spending time with my growing band of grandkids.

I take a cheap flight to Nice and I always choose somewhere small to stay, not corporate, often family-run and find them safe and friendly. After breakfast, I walk for an hour and then sit and read somewhere with a view of the sea.

The sea forever reminds me of one's mortality and how ephemeral life is. Gotta make the most of it.

I'll take the coastal walk into neighbouring St Jean Cap Ferrat and eat lunch before walking back past the home of the late British actor David Niven and possibly Bono's villa, as I know he lives there somewhere. I read the local newspaper on the beach. Invariably, people will say hello and chat and you can enjoy company or solitude, as you wish. The local bus is always worthwhile, not just because it's so cheap at €2 to get anywhere along the coast, but also to feel part of the place. I've chatted (in French) with foreign students there to improve their French (that'll hardly have helped) and to local vegans, keen to convert me to their diet.

I try to speak in French the whole time (and psychiatrists say that's a really good preventative against dementia; that, and spelling backwards and doing double digit multiplication. It's actually very satisfying when you check your answer by division!). Spelling backwards reminds me of being a young teenager writing in my diary in reverse for secrecy! Crosswords both frustrate and delight me. I doubt if I'll ever master anything beyond the quick one in the newspaper. And my insistence on correct grammar makes me something of a boring pedant according to my offspring, but the grandkids are too young and too polite to complain when I tell them it's "bored with" not "of", that it's "could have" rather than "could of". And I am determined not to continue to let Sudoku remain beyond me.

With ageing comes a boost in self-assurance due to life experience. You know what matters. There's no need ever to be envious about anything. Possessions become utterly unimportant. You can't take them with you. You must never stop learning and you must never stop laughing. I find travel energising, rather than exhausting and I'm hoping this might encourage others (I refuse to say oldies!) to embrace my MO which is "do it while you can".

It's really hard to believe that you've hit your 70s. It's like it's happened to somebody else, it couldn't be me.

But you really have to try to make the most of the time you have left, particularly if you're in good health. This might or might not last. Don't wait until it's too late. Regret the things you didn't do. Better still, have no regrets. It's not the best growing old, but sure it beats the alternative.

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