One of the most inspirational people I’ve encountered in recent years is an American woman who is, I believe, the oldest stewardess in the world.
Aged 84, Bette Nash has been flying for more than six decades: these days she serves customers on the American Airlines shuttle between Boston and Washington DC. She seemed surprised when I asked her for her secret. ‘When I think about it now,’ she said slowly, ‘I think my goal in life is to keep moving.’
Without knowing it, Bette turned out to have been following three of the tenets of the old-age lifestyle gurus: keep active, retain your sense of curiosity and connect with people. She doesn’t go to the gym, and she admits to eating chocolate, but it’s clear that the thrill of the job has never palled. She reminisced about the time she flew with Jackie Kennedy, the former US first lady, in 1965.
In those days, she said, the stewardesses wore white gloves and wrote the tickets by hand. The technology has changed since then, but ‘the people are the same’, she said. ‘I thrive on people.’
Is Bette Nash old? ‘I don’t feel like I’m an old person,’ she told me. ‘My sister has Parkinson’s and dementia and I look at her and think she’s old, but she’s younger than I am.’ Bette is one of a new group of people, in their 70s and 80s, who are healthy and active, have much to offer and are living in what I call Extra Time – an extended middle age.
In Illinois, researchers have found that septuagenarians who are still exercising after taking up running in the Seventies are now biologically 30 years younger than their chronological age – aerobic activity being a ‘miracle cure,’ according to the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, due to its protective qualities against stroke, heart disease, some cancers and even dementia.
Alone, but not lonely
We know that people age better – like Bette Nash – when they have strong social connections. Yet communities are fracturing; neighbours have fewer positive interactions with one another; people are joining fewer clubs and societies and spending more time online, which does not bring the same level of interaction.
We urgently need to build new support networks – not least because we are running out of children. This year, the number of people aged over 65 in the world has outstripped those under five.
This changing ratio of old to young means we cannot always rely on ‘family’. In Denmark and Germany many older people live in co-housing developments, with people who share a common philosophy. Brilliant initiatives such as HomeShare, from Canada to Korea, enables older people to rent out a room to a student.
In Germany, grandparents are even ‘adopting’ single parent families who are not blood relatives. We need more of these intergenerational schemes.
Having a sense of purpose is also strongly correlated with better health. In Japanese culture, the concept of ‘ikigai’, or ‘reason for being’, plays an important role in Silver Centres, organisations that find part-time work for elderly people. I have seen 90 year olds using their calligraphy skills to write official certificates for companies; others clean parks or pack goods for local businesses. The chance to be useful and have a gossip is a lifeline. We are good at putting on coffee mornings, but perhaps need coffee mornings with a purpose.
Bette Nash, and those like her, show that the 21st century offers huge opportunities to live longer, better lives. But unless we spread that opportunity to everyone, our society will be the poorer for it.
The Daily Telegraph