Life Lessons From People Older And Wiser Than You!
Fretting about getting older? Two work colleagues set about redefining the ageing process with their website Bolder and a book that celebrates older people still living their best – and sportiest – lives
By Amy Sedghi
Photography by Helen Cathcart
It’s a common enough tale: hitting their mid-thirties, friends Dominique Afacan and Helen Cathcart worried about getting older. To them, and so many others, ageing seemed a scary prospect and one that society declared was rapidly making them ‘past it’.
“We were both single, in our thirties, and we were constantly being told [there was] this ticking clock,” says Helen. “We thought it was mad.” Colleagues at the time as well as firm friends, Dominique, an editor, and Helen, a photographer, both worked at a publishing house. “We were getting sent off on assignments all the time together and we realised that the most interesting people that we came across were quite often older,” explains Helen.
They decided that this was something they wanted to document in a personal capacity, and so their passion project, Bolder, was formed in 2015. They began with a website, sharing portraits and profiles of a mix of interesting interviewees from across the world, all aged over 70 years old.
It was swiftly followed by an Instagram, press coverage and a book deal, leading to Bolder: Life lessons from people older and wiser than you. There was even talk of a television show, before the pandemic hit and derailed plans, says Helen. “We wanted two hear and tell stories of people much, much older than us and [who were] able to comfort us and [give us] something to aspire to,” says Helen. With society constantly thrusting images, advertising and stories about youth, the default narrative was that ageing was something to be feared, explains Dominique. “Bolder was our way of going out into the real world and finding out the truth about getting older.”
Crafting the book alongside their full-time jobs, the pair worked as a team meeting each interviewee in person, Helen photographing the subject while Dominique interviewed them. Having that face to face interaction was essential for the pair and something they wouldn’t compromise on, although time constraints did make it challenging, Dominique admits.
Travel was a key part of their job so Helen and Dominique kept an eye and ear out on their trips for potential interviewees. Helen recalls one instance, when they were attending a wedding in New Zealand: “I was sitting at the reception next to an older gentleman and telling him about this project and he said ‘you’ve got to come and watch us play tennis tomorrow. There’s this amazing woman there.'”
The next morning, they trudged up a mountain to a tennis court, wondering why they’d said yes, when they arrived to see their future cover star, Muffie Grieve, who had played tennis for Canada in her former years. They watched the 82-year-old who was busy thrashing her male counterpart with power serves. “Today we still say ‘be more Muffie’,” they laugh. “That tells you how much influence she had on us.” “Her attitude was just incredible,” says Dominique in awe. “At 82, she’d just got married and was learning Spanish.” Helen concurs: “She had this energy and charisma – I think it comes across in the picture because it’s so striking.” When it came to the book launch, Muffie flew over from Canada to London, and – to Helen and Dominique’s delight – swept into the room in a leopard print dress.
Sport and exercise was a theme that cropped up in a lot of their interviews, but it was interesting in the way which it was viewed, says Helen. “A lot of them wouldn’t see it as a thing. It was just something that was within their lifestyle to keep [them] fit and moving.” That focus on health and physical activity as part of a daily routine is especially prominent in a number of the interviews. For example, in their interview with Muffie, she describes how she sees tennis as a lesson for life: “you win some, you lose some and you fight again”. Another interviewee, Ellery McGowan, 71, is photographed for the book post cold-water swim, standing in her swimming costume with a beaming smile, swimming cap and goggles on her head. “For me, she represented strength,” says Dominique. “She had endured her fair share of personal tragedy but her power was remarkable. There was not a scrap of self pity about her.”
She recalls Ellery talking about swimming through ice on one of her cold-water swims and the resulting blood on her knuckles: “That tells you everything you need to know about Ellery. We could all benefit from that kind of rugged determination.” Although Helen and Dominique were drawn to each of their interviewees due to their remarkable characters and experiences, they’d often find their interviewees bemused by their interest. Whilst they viewed them as extraordinary, the subjects were just living their everyday lives. “Every person we meet through Bolder gives us a new life experience in some way,” shares Dominique. “We get an insight into a totally different way of living.” An interview with a then 76-year old Tuula Olin, a professional ice skater, took them to Finland where Tuula awaited them with hand-knitted gloves at the ice rink. “It was such a kind and thoughtful gesture,” says Dominique. “When we watched her skate, this warmth somehow shone through. She was brimming with humanity – and a lot of mischief.”
As well as bringing health benefits, keeping active in older life helps to maintain social relationships. This was something Helen spotted in their interview with husband and wife skydiving duo Pat and Alicia Moorehead, aged 86 and 70 respectively. “They were vivacious,” recalls Helen. “They travel all over the world and fly over deserts. For him [especially], it was a very social thing.” The couple, who hold multiple skydiving world records, met through the sport. Although skydiving brought them together and has led to them exploring many countries as a pair where they carry out jumps over new landscapes, they are both also proud of their independence. As Pat puts it: “Ours is a partnership. There is no boss… we are simultaneously independent and dependent.”
What really struck both Helen and Dominique when they met Alicia in LA (at a time when it seemed all their friends were starting to have babies) was the unapologetic way in which she stated her desire to not have children. “She was so calm and self-assured,” Helen remembers. “I loved her total ownership of being single in later life before she met Pat,” adds Dominique. “There is so much stigma attached to being a single woman but Alicia rose above it all and saw only positives; freedom and adventure.”
Peppered throughout the profiles and stories in the book are life lessons; although some are more serious and thought provoking than others, none ever seem solemn or patronising. There are some that will surprise and elicit a chuckle (“Regrets? I would have loved to have slept with a bunch of other men” is one such highlight) but it’s striking that the tone is upbeat, optimistic and jovial. “Our interviewees often had a more youthful outlook than we did, and were often far more active than us,” acknowledges Dominique. “They were more fashionable, more adventurous, braver and everything in between. All the stereotypes we had been fed about getting old fell away the further we got into the book.”
Dominique isn’t kidding – many of the interviewees leave you amazed at the amount of activities and adventures they cram in, at an age that’s often viewed as a time to ‘slow down’. Take Norma Howard, 92, who is the oldest female wing-walker in the UK. Aside from that incredible feat which she undertook to raise funds for charity, Norma goes to the gym every morning and swims regularly. Speaking about exercise, she told Helen and Dominique: “I’ve always been into fitness and I’ve made a lot of friends through exercise since I retired. Swimming gives me a real lift every day and it means I am out of the house early. There’s quite a big group of us that do it and we’ll meet for coffee afterwards. I go to the gym every morning too – I tend to use the recliner bike so I can watch TV at the same time.” Speaking of the wing-walk, Norma says frankly, that the challenge she had to overcome wasn’t fear; it was climbing into position unaided after two hip replacements.
An important takeaway for Helen and Dominique was that mindset is key when it comes to youthfulness and a vitality for life. “We learned that there is no one age when you’re suddenly ‘old’,” stresses Dominique. “We are all old to someone else and we’re all getting older every minute, every hour, every day. We learnt to embrace that.” “Getting older is a privilege that not everyone is lucky enough to experience. We learnt that we do have control over how we age – and that mindset is crucial.”