Itâs never too late: elderly high-achievers
Margaret Ford, 94, author
Itâs fair to say I didnât expect, aged 93, to become Britainâs oldest debut author. My story is just my life, really. It never crossed my mind that anyone else might care to know more.
Iâd been married to my husband, Jim, for 67 years when he did the dirty and died on me seven years ago. One day not soon after I started to look through this trunk full of 630 letters weâd sent to each other, reading them back to reminisce. There are a lot of them â at points during his army postings around the world he was sending me up to three a day.
It dawned on me that people these days have no idea â or donât remember â what it was like before communication became so easy. I wanted people to know what it was like for the boys back in those days.
Iâd seen an interview on TV and someone was explaining how theyâd written a book with the help of a ghost writer. I looked through the phone book and called a number; before the conversation was over, weâd agreed to get to work.
My intention was always to write about the life Jim and I had together, but everyone involved seemed more interested in my story, what Iâd been through. Right, I thought, weâll have to cover all that, too. In the end I agreed to write about everything up until our 1946 wedding. The rest, I suppose, will have to be in book number two.
It was hard to know where to begin, to be honest. My alcoholic, gambling father who deserted us; leaving school at 13 to help my struggling mother make rent. And then there is Jim: how we met at a dance and travelled the world together. My doomed love affairs, too. Even as I was writing I asked myself, who the heck would want to read all this? But once I got started, it became a joy.
For a while I was concerned about what readers might think of me. My family isnât perfect, and neither am I, but I laid it all bare. Writing it all down was liberating really; it taught me not to care.
I didnât do this for money or to launch a new career, but it has given me a new lease of life regardless. Iâve had no children, that never quite worked out, so I had nobody to pass all these stories down to. But I still wanted to leave something behind, a footprint, to show it happened.
Frankly there was quite a lot of fuss when I finished A Daughterâs Choice. Lots of people wanted interviews, which was very strange. Jim wouldnât have done this. But he was bright, warm and a natural storyteller. He should have written the books, so Iâm doing it for him. Now I can get on with the next one, if anyone wants it. Iâll be 95 in May, Iâd better hurry up.
Giuseppe PaternÃ², 97, graduateâHowever old you are, donât give up on your dreamsâ: Giuseppe PaternÃ². Photograph: Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters
Over the past few months, people have often asked me what advice I might have to offer. I always say the same: however old you are, donât give up on your dreams, overcoming obstacles takes hard work. But to people my own age I say this specifically: donât waste the rest of your life staring at the television screen. Thereâs so much more you can do.
I grew up here in Palermo, the oldest of seven children in a very poor family, everything we had was spent on keeping us fed. I read so much at primary school my teacher labelled me a wizard; Iâd buy cheap books from a small market with all the change I could gather and dive into them late into the night. Dad declared my education over when I was 14: it was time for me to start earning.
Before I knew it, my adult life had begun. By 28 I was married with children, training as a surveyor on the Italian railways. I stayed there for 42 years. My passion for learning never faltered. I continued to read, and developed a deep love of philosophy.
By the 1980s Iâd retired and life had slowed down again. With more time, I started immersing myself in the culture of philosophy once more. I wrote a book, which was received positively. When I discussed the prospect of enrolling on a course with a professor I met by chance, he did all he could to encourage me to go. Thatâs when I picked up the phone and called the University of Palermo.
Aged 93, I enrolled on my undergraduate degree in history and philosophy. A month in, I contacted the head of the faculty. I was having doubts: everyone else on the course was so much younger than I was; there was so much technology involved I didnât understand. He told me that I must continue, that I have a gift and should persevere. It gave me the strength to carry on.
Soon I didnât feel any different to the other students: Iâd read and study just like them. Unlike the others, I used a typewriter to write my thesis rather than a computer. But that didnât matter, the result was the same. Three years later, six weeks before my 97th birthday, I graduated top of my class.
Graduation day itself was quite overwhelming. In a total surprise, the chancellor came to greet me, having organised a special ceremony to celebrate. I may have been their oldest student, but in that moment I was thrilled, I felt like a little boy. When he handed me a bunch of flowers I was overcome with emotion. Iâd always wanted to study, but thought my moment had passed. It was such a special day; Iâd finally made it happen.
My time at university has changed me for certain. Itâs as if my brain has evolved; Iâve started to speak a different language. If Iâm discussing the newspapers with my friends, I can articulate myself with greater precision. I suppose I just think a little differently now. Iâm still the same man Iâve been for coming up to a century, just with a few minor upgrades.
Iâve signed up to start my Masterâs in philosophy. I might be getting on, but Iâm still determined to keep learning; broadening my horizons. Iâm not driven by aspiration, but a thirst for knowledge: Iâve been desperate to quench it all my life.
Sister Madonna Buder, 90, triathleteâI was nicknamed the Iron Nunâ: Sister Madonna Buder. Photograph: J. Craig Sweat 2010
Running was never something Iâd considered doing. Back when I was a child in St Louis, Missouri, it wasnât an activity considered to be âfor girlsâ. But sitting around a table at a Christian conference on the Oregon coast in the late 1970s, a visiting priest was extolling the virtues of hot-footing around. You can get high from it, he said, which got my attention. I asked him: shouldnât our highs come from prayer? I am a nun, after all.
Running, he told me, works for the mind, body and soul; that spoke to me. That night I slipped out of the hotel side door in a pair of hand-me-down thin-soled tennis shoes. I stepped down to the beach, and set off. I covered half a mile in five minutes, without taking a stop.
I ran my first marathon in the early 1980s, and completed it feeling a little lonely â there were no other women in my age group to join me when I went up to receive my award. Hopefully, I said, one day thereâll be a few more of us. Slowly but surely, they appeared. One of my new friends floated the idea of me competing in an Ironman: a 2.4-mile swim followed by a 112-mile cycle, with a full-length marathon to top it off. The more I rejected it, the more it teased me into trying. I competed in my first aged 55.
To this day Iâve run 400 triathlons, 45 of them Ironman distance. I was nicknamed the Iron Nun way back; Iâve become something of a celebrity in our world. Itâs strange, it wasnât just sports which I lacked in my life for many years, but also self-confidence.
In 2012, aged 82, I competed in my final Ironman in Canada. In doing so I opened up the category for the 80-pluses. I might not make those distances now, but Iâm still competing; my last triathlon â pre-pandemic â was in September last year.
Iâm older, but I donât want to be less active. I could do it before; why not now? Granted, I cover less ground than I used to. When the snow melts in Washington Iâll get back to my own regular post-mass exercises: a half-mile swim, 20 miles on the bike and a three-mile run. That final part is more of a shuffle now, but itâs movement nonetheless. And that circulation is what keeps your mind sharp, body tuned and spirit soaring.
Lisel Heise, 101, politicianâThe love I have for my community runs deepâ: Lisel Heise. Photograph: Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters
Iâve been a teacher my whole working life. That was how Iâve expressed my politics â and engaged in my civil duty â for a very long time. It was with me from birth: my earliest memories are of my father being held as a political prisoner for standing up against the French occupation. He went on to be a city councillor in the 1930s, arrested and jailed protesting against the burning of the synagogue in town. It mustâve passed on to me in my motherâs milk. But thatâs not to say I ever had great aspirations to hold high office.
And yet I was elected to the council here in my small German town of Kirchheimbolanden (Kibo for short) in May 2019; Iâd turned 100 two months earlier. It all just sort of happened. Teaching at several schools in the area over so many years, itâs safe to say I know almost everyone. Iâve stayed in contact with many of my former students; some of them are now involved in local politics. Iâve taught economics, agriculture and politics in the classroom â I understand these important subjects. And the love I have for my community runs deep. The fact much of the electorate was taught by me Iâm certain helped, too.
There was a consensus that one political failure that needed addressing was the health and wellbeing of people of all ages. That meant tackling carbon emissions and creating opportunities for young people; it meant reversing the decision by the council to shut down our swimming facilities over the past 10 years, an issue I feel very close to.
I donât know if itâs because of my age, but people respected me when I spoke at meetings; discussions I led were respectful and impassioned. With decades of experience in the classroom, Iâd learned to keep calm and in control.
Right now we are in lockdown, society has gone into isolation. The things I stood for in my election will, once this time is over, be more important than ever before. Weâll need to invest in what makes life worth living to shift peopleâs perspectives; music, art, literature, sport. Itâll be up to the politicians to ensure our souls can find nourishment once more.
After turning 100, I feel Iâve done my stint â itâs someone elseâs turn now. That doesnât mean, of course, Iâll stop trying to change things. If anything, I have more time to make myself heard. Iâm determined to see my beloved outdoor pool reopened: I wonât stop until I can dive into it once again.
Emmanuel Gasa, 76, lawyerâI had grandchildren older than some of the kids on my courseâ: Emmanuel Gasa. Photograph: Thapelo Morebudi/Sunday Times
Iâd already done quite a few different jobs when I set out on my new path to become an attorney at the age of 60. Iâd worked as a hospital clerk, for our medical council, and â after the end of Apartheid â supporting communities within the South African National Civic Organisation (SANCO). All that time I was studying, too: a BA, a BCom followed by a higher certificate in education.
I took a job in adult education in Atteridgeville, Pretoria, where I live. Iâd been expecting to teach commerce and business â subjects I knew â but the man who hired me had other ideas, and wanted me to be a law tutor. I explained Iâd not studied these subjects. Iâd never considered becoming an attorney; I knew little about the legal world. I was told the job was mine, and that didnât matter. So I accepted, learning as I went. Suddenly, this new door in front of me was wide open. Becoming an attorney made so much sense. I enrolled in my law studies.
The kids on my course were far younger: Iâm pretty sure I had grandchildren older than some. I struggled, for a while, to feel like I fitted in comfortably in classes â it was strange being the old man at the back. For a while I suspect they were scared of me, although many have become friends.
It took some time for me to complete all the qualifications and training, 11 years in fact. I have six kids, and 15 grandchildren; it was sometimes hard to find the time for my books while also keeping afloat.
In my final year, I was asked to make a speech to the law society at the University of South Africa. In 2015, aged 71, I graduated alongside one of my granddaughters, which was special. Many of my friends were surprised when they sent their congratulations, I think most of them thought Iâd never make it that far. When it came to my time articling at a firm, I found at the start I was treated too respectfully. While the younger trainees were sent out to run documents to court â learning in the process â my colleagues assumed Iâd think it was beneath me. I proved that I was keen and able, so in time they treated me the same.
Finding a job at my age hasnât been easy, but just as I refused to let being older get in the way of my studies, I know Iâll be the same with finding future work. If nobody will hire me, that wonât stop me. Iâm hoping to open my own practice and that way no one can tell me no.
Natalie Levant, 89, comedianâKnitting wasnât doing it for meâ: 89-year-old comedian Natalie Levant. Photograph: Courtesy of Natalie Levant
I was married to my husband for 55 years, although it didnât feel it. He was one of the worldâs good guys: an attorney with the soul of a sweet country doctor; a kind, bright uncomplicated man. And then one day in 2009, on his way to a hearing, he had a heart attack and died. Iâve had better days, letâs just say that.
I tried acting how a 77-year-old widow is supposed to. Knitting wasnât doing it for me, and I hated going to the nail salon. The prospect of cruises left me queasy.
And then one day in 2012, I ended up volunteering at Siloam, a resource for people living with HIV and Aids here in Philadelphia. I was stuffing envelopes with a guy and he asked if Iâd ever considered doing standup. He passed me his friendâs card, who was organising an arts festival at a gay bar across town. I turned up, without a clue of what to say. Why did I go? The question is, why not?
To this moment I can still feel the warmth that crowd gave me when I stood up in front of them, petrified. Iâd prepared some material, but was not confident. I opened my mouth and it just came flowing out. I canât remember any of what I said, though â I am 89.
When Iâm performing somewhere new, people are often baffled. Walking into the club, Iâll be asked by a concerned waiter if I need help. Stepping out on stage, I play with my audience. âDonât bother calling 911,â Iâll say, âI know exactly where I am. And donât call my family, they couldnât care less.â Itâs an advantage, being my age.
In my sets I talk about the myths of ageing and stereotypes. Thereâs a healthy dose of self-deprecation in there, too. I offer tips for getting old gracefully. Dress how you like; who cares if your upper arms look like bags of dead mice? Thatâs more room for tattoos.
Early on, I wondered if I should perform exclusively to older folks. But it turns out while some of them get me, most donât. They donât like that I swim against the flow. Thereâs a role youâre expected to play as you get older. When you refuse to, most people my own age get uncomfortable fast. While I was worried that young people wouldnât be interested, Iâve found the opposite: kids who donât look old enough to tie their shoes want to hang out with this grandma after her gigs. Itâs so special when they come up to hug me, and whisper in my ear: âNever stop.â At my age itâs hard to get that sort of high safely anywhere else.
I always close my sets with the same lines â that Iâve been on the planet a hundred thousand years and have learned just two things. One: never know your place â itâs my mantra. Wherever you are belongs to you, itâs where you should be. And the other thing? If someone asks you to act your age, politely tell them to fuck off.