60plus women tackle aging

Slow down? It’s obvious the thought hasn’t occurred to our “cover girls”, all in their early 60s.

Senator Vivienne Poy, Anna Hobbs, a freelance writer and one of the first editors of Canadian Living and CARP’s Director of Public Relations, Judy Cutler all rearranged busy schedules and battled a snow storm during rush hour in Toronto to attend our FiftyPlus photo shoot, fielding cell phone calls between blow dryers and make-up applications.

Poy, Canada’s first Asian Canadian senator, admits with a laugh that she exercises her mind a lot more than she does her body. (She’s currently working on a Ph.D. in history.)

But luckily for her, it looks as if she inherited the right genes. Her mother, Esther Yewpick Lee, seldom exercised, yet lived to be 86. The high-energy Poy dresses for action.

“I wear pants every day, even for evening wear, because I walk too fast. Skirts don’t work for me.”

Gender equality champion
A believer in gender equality, she is currently championing a bill to makehe English lyrics of O Canada include all Canadians by changing the words from “in all thy sons command” to “in all of us command”.

In spite of a busy lifestyle that finds her regularly in Ottawa or delivering speeches in various parts of the country, she’s careful to maintain a close relationship with her three sons and their families.

It gives balance to my life,” she says.

Growing up in a wealthy family in Hong Kong, and virtually raised by servants, Poy insisted on being the primary caregiver for her children as they grew up.

“What you learn within your family is very important,” she says, “such as how to behave towards people, how to handle yourself. Your parents teach you that.”

Changing the rules
Poy and her mother disagreed in one area: “She never came to terms with the fact that I wanted to work. Her expectation of me was that I’d marry someone who had a good profession and live a life of luxury.”

In fact she married Dr. Neville Poy, a plastic surgeon (now retired). But once her children were in school, she dove into a three-year fashion program at Seneca College. For 14 years she operated Vivienne Poy Mode in the trendy Yorkville area of Toronto, designing the luxurious sweaters that all but flew out of her shop.

She continues to design clothing, furniture and jewellery for herself. It’s a convenient way to get exactly the item she wants, but more than that, it satisfies her creative nature.

Next page: More active lifestyle

More active lifestyle
These days, Anna Hobbs is busier than ever with her family’s wine importing business, writing, travelling and completing the dream home she and her husband are building in the country.

She often thinks of her mother’s dignified demeanour. Doris Christie, born in 1896, grew up in an era when a lady never hurried.

“She was very regulated, measured, whereas I’m likely to tear around. I think life was lived at a more leisurely rate then.”

Five years ago, Hobbs celebrated her passage into the 60s by going on an eight-day backpacking hike through England’s Cotswolds Hills.

“I couldn’t imagine my mother doing that,” she says. “I couldn’t imagine any of her contemporaries doing that either, whereas it wasn’t so extraordinary for me to do that.”

She points out, however, that her mother, a petite woman not given to eating excessively made a point of walking two miles a day, well into her eighties. 

Focus on health
A 50-year-old friend’s ill health prompted Hobbs to get serious about her own good health. “She was about five years older than I was and had abused her body all her life,” she recalls. “It was like a light going on for me. I realized all of a sudden how important it was to look after the healthy body you’ve been given. That’s when I joined the gym. And I felt so much better.”

So good, in fact, that sound nutrition and a consciously active lifestyle have remained a central part of her life.

The elegant Hobbs is perfectly at home in jeans and occasionally exchanges outfits with her daughters. She wouldn’t have dreamed of wearing her mother’s clothes however.

“The whole world has become more casual,” she notes. “I can’t imagine my mother in jeans, but perhaps if she were 60 today, she would be.”

Gave up jobs
Hobbs recalls with awe the matter-of-fact way in which her mother returned to nursing at the age of 60 following the death of her husband.

“I saw her go from an absolutely devoted wife and mother to taking up her career again,” she says. “She showed me by example that when things are not the way you want, then you just have to make the best of them. She just picked up her life and moved on.”

Ironically, marriage had left Hobbs’ mother no option but to give up her satisfying job as director of nursing at a Montreal hospital because the position required her to live on site.  In those days, women could often expect to be fired if they wed says Gerda Kaegi, professor emerita of the department of politics at Ryerson University in Toronto.

“In the late 1940s, federal government teachers had to resign if they got married. For families it was very often a struggle and a woman would be very severely criticized if she was working.”

Mother supported family
Some were censured simply because they were divorced. Judy Cutler’s parents had met as activists in the labour movement, but after the marriage fell apart, her mother had to focus on earning a living for her three children.

Finally, at age 60, after working since the age of 12, mostly in the garment industry, Bertha Cutler took early retirement to provide daycare for Judy’s son, Jason.

“It was her new career,” says Cutler. But it was also a time when she could pursue her life-long interest in the arts and eastern mysticism.

“Her life changed completely then. It’s also when she became a Buddhist, so it was a turning point for her in so many ways.”

As a teenager, Bertha’s opportunity to study dance on a scholarship in Paris vanished when her family refused to let her go. Her daughter Judy however, went to university and has spent most of her career in music and theatre production and management as far away as New York and England.

“Whatever I do, I have to feel committed to it, so I throw myself into it 150 per cent,” says Cutler. “For me, it has to be something where I feel I’m making a difference. My mother took a lot of pride in the work she did, but she really worked to pay the bills.”

Next page: Spiritual connection helps

Spiritual connection helps
 Ironically, Bertha’s fatal battle with colon cancer provided Cutler with a new career direction.

“I became part of the home care system and the hospital system, too, as she was in and out of hospitals. I really had to be an advocate,” she says.

The experience showed her what seniors need from the health care system and what they weren’t getting. It also provided training for her job with CARP. “In a sense, my career gives meaning to my mother’s struggle.”  

Cutler also finds meaning through Tibetan Buddhism. “It really connects the mind and body,” she says, “which is important for a holistic approach to life.”

For 30 years she’s been working with a Tibetan Buddhist foundation that has built a school and a home for destitute seniors and orphans.

“I think that spiritual connection makes me go beyond age,” she says. “I don’t really think in terms of age. My son Jason is my best friend. I have friends of all ages and I never think in terms of slots. I know I’m not 20 any more, but it doesn’t really matter. “

Redefining aging process
Just how old is 60 now, anyhow?

“Since I’m one of them now, I think we’re just hitting our stride,” smiles Dr. Jean Marmoreo, a physician at Sunnybrook and Women’s College Health Sciences Centre and author of The New Middle Ages: Women in Midlife (Prentice Hall Canada, 2002). 

Marmoreo notes Canada has 3 million women in their midlife years, which she defines as 40 to 65. In her book, she writes that in five years, those women will represent 20 per cent of the country’s population, and “given the steady influx of women to positions of influence, a significant percentage of our nation’s wealth will rest in their hands.”

Even 25 years ago, she says, there was an assumption that midlife was a waiting room where you waited for things to end. The image, one of dowdiness, frumpiness and the inevitable sag is a perception arising from what it was like for our mothers, she claims.

Today’s women are redefining this phase of their existence.

“We are not our mothers,” says Marmoreo.

Next page: Media images dated

Media images dated
However, society hasn’t yet taken note of these dynamic, 60-plus, yet largely invisible women.

“We still have a long way to go in promoting positive images of older women,” says, Barbara A. Mitchell, assistant professor of gerontology and sociology at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, B.C.

“Current media and societal images really don’t represent the demographic or social realities of older women. When we do see older women in advertisements, they’re usually shown in conjunction with aging products and services like Botox injections and lip enhancements. Older women have been relatively invisible on television and films but we are seeing some positives. We’ve got some role models such as Barbra Streisand and Margaret Atwood,” she says.

Women in this age bracket are a diverse lot, she adds, whose well-being depends on many factors, including physical health, financial independence, the quality of their social ties and the communities in which they live.

Impact of women’s movement
The women’s movement had a more profound effect on women now entering their 60s than it had on their mothers.

“It empowered them,” says Professor Mitchell, “and improved their opportunities in terms of education and financial and social status.”

Today’s 60-year-olds are also better off in terms of health, income and social support networks, she notes. However, as Canada has become a more multicultural nation, women have also experienced some negatives about aging.

“A lot of women who immigrated to Canada,” says Mitchell, “are not eligible for pension benefits and are particularly vulnerable to poverty.”

They can also be isolated behind a language barrier, forced to depend on their families for almost everything.

Life expectancy rising
Life expectancy for women has risen. In 1961, a woman of 65 could expect to live another 16 years, but by 1997 a woman the same age could live another 20 years. But humans don’t all age at the same rate.

“Some women completely defy the aging process,” says Mitchell, “and they redefine old age by really staying healthy and fit, dressing youthfully and remaining active.

Others, she points out, “become stereotypical little old ladies.” And she warns that just because they’re living longer, they’re not necessarily healthier.

Obesity biggest problem
Dr. Ken Walker, who writes for FiftyPlus as Dr. W. Gifford Jones, agrees.

“Too many older women are not healthy because they’re obese,” he says bluntly.

“The population as a whole is gaining weight. And if you believe what the epidemiologists say in their surveys, women are many pounds heavier than they were 50 years ago and that means that there’s more diabetes, which can lead to gangrene of the extremities, blindness, renal failure. And since they’re living longer they’re also developing more degenerative diseases, although they are getting better medical care than they did 50 years ago. But obesity is bad. Besides diabetes, it results in more heart disease, more hypertension, more arthritis.”

Despite the downside of living longer, perceptions and situations will change for the better for older women, as the baby boomers reach 60, asserts Professor Mitchell.

“These women are going to have more economic and political clout than their mothers had.”

In the meantime, she adds, “older women need to actively resist stereotypes and celebrate their age with humour and grace. Hopefully we’ll see a continuation of social movements (including feminism) and these role models that really celebrate the wisdom and resources of older women.”