Authenticity in very old age

Rough drawing of five very old people, all for real. One man in a suit and academic gown. A woman resembling the queen. A vigorous woman in love and a puffer jacket. A woman typing. And a woman floating towards a bar of music.
Five nonagenarians with the unexpected authenticity in old age

I am inspired by women and men in their 90s. In very old age, they seem to be true to themselves.

I interviewed 12 nonagenarians early this year. As I listen again to their voices, I am still charmed by how different they are from each other and how thoroughly individual. They always were individuals, for sure, but in very old age there’s absolutely no doubt at all that they are entirely comfortable being their unique, authentic selves.

I think that’s why I found their company strangely calming, even in vigorous conversations. I didn’t have to second-guess what they meant.

In our interviews, they didn’t seem to have that filter of, “What will people think?” They said exactly what they thought. And as one of them said, “Now, when I talk, I believe what I say.”

What an amazing thing to say! Is that true of you? Is that true of me? More so now, perhaps, in my 80s: I usually think a little longer before I speak. I do filter what I say, but not for fear of being blamed or disliked or embarrassed. It’s more like, What do I really think about this? What might be true and possibly helpful?

By the way, obviously I did not interview the Queen. But she certainly was an extraordinary working nonagenarian.

Right now my life is over-full, with three performances in the next two weeks. Working with a play script inspired by conversations with very old people excites me and yet it brings me a kind of peace. I take from these conversations the knowledge that it is possible to live an authentic, creative, satisfying life in your 90s, even with illness, disabilities, and the many and various changes brought on by aging.

37 thoughts on “Authenticity in very old age

  1. Wynne Leon says:

    “Now when I talk, I believe what I say.” What an interesting statement. Thank you for this post and sharing these voices!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      There’s more where that came from!

  2. I, too, love the statement “Now, when I talk, I believe what I say” and I would say the same. I also feel that I no longer have to prove myself to anyone. I am content in my own skin, comfortable in my own beliefs, yet willing to accept that everyone has a right to their own opinions, and to express them. I may disagree vehemently, and am very unlikely to be persuaded by any argument contra to my own established ways, but I am always willing to live and learn!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Interesting isn’t it?

  3. granny1947 says:

    My 99 year old stepdad is incredible.
    His mind is still great.
    However, I get the feeling he is ready to shuffle off this mortal coil.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Glad to be alive but not opposed to dying? I’m quoting again.

  4. I enjoy the way you celebrate old age. Reading your posts refreshes me.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Thank you so much, Anne.

  5. Sadje says:

    I like your perspective on getting old.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      It comes from watching those who are 10 years older than me 🙂

      1. Sadje says:


  6. Dan Antion says:

    This post is inspiring, Rachel. I’ve only ever spent time with a few people in their nineties. One was my mom, who always said what she thought.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Interesting! Many more of us reach our 90s in good health nowadays, so things are changing.

  7. Ally Bean says:

    How amazing to realize that you finally believe yourself. I kind of feel sorry for someone who only stumbled on this behavior later in life, but at least he did.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      There is a lot of people pleasing to overcome along the way.

  8. judithhb says:

    Interesting post Rachel. I have an acquaintance who is now 95 and still drives herself around and looks after herself. She is as capable as a woman many years younger. When I grow up I want to be a Mildred. Although I have to admit she’s only 11years older than me

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      That makes good sense to me. That’s the right age for a role model.

  9. auntyuta says:

    I think not a lot of people find it interesting to commute with people in their nineties. Which is a pity, really.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      It’s possibly hard to find opportunities to mix with people in their nineties. Do you think that’s the reason?

  10. auntyuta says:

    Maybe bad health could be a reason. Or being too immobile and having nobody to help you along a bit. It would be most difficult to find a good companion in your age group if you are in your nineties, and most younger people would not be very interested in having a lot of social contact with a very aged person. This is the way it is. The older you get, that is at a very advanced age, you’re likely to have less and less friends. This is of course generally speaking. There may be some exceptions.
    As far as opportunities go, well, if you are interested in communication, you have to create opportunities :-)!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I like a scheme run by Age Concern in New Zealand. People volunteer to spend an hour or so with an older person who feels isolated (for any number of reasons). A friend in her 80s does this and it can be rewarding for both.

  11. Great post Rachel, and I’m passing it on.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Thanks so much!

  12. My grandma is 98, she’s totally authentic but I’d say that she always has been. She says she only feels 16 inside. She has great wisdom and her advice is listened to and shared by the whole family. My kids know that you mustn’t wish your life away, GG says so and she knows.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Clearly your grandma has got it all together!

  13. She is totally awesome. Still lived alone with no regular care, just a cleaner once a week. She danced ceilidh at my wedding 13 years ago and no one could believe she was 85. She’s so full of life and sparkle.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Let’s be more like her 🙂

  14. cedar51 says:

    I think I’ve written about my 90s sister who I finally had to stop communicating with as she “forgot who I was” – had some very weird chats with her, or not even got past the opening “hello…” as she would slam down the phone or say she had no siblings. She in a “home now – some months ago she caught covid and some of her family wanted me to touch base with her…” But I said “no” – mainly because it just makes me so sad and I my sanity needs to be protected…

    Her family are also not on my radar, all that much. I caught covid but none of them made any attempt to assist me…let alone during the lockdowns! I’m in my 70s

    So there are great people in their 90s. I guess…

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Yes, it’s good to remember that. You needn’t fear that you’ll be like that in your nineties. You will still be your own good self.

  15. cedar51 says:

    thanks Rachel, I hope to be “good” and still “me self” 🙂

  16. I have unexpectedly found myself knowing several over-90’s at once. There is so much truth here in your post, in my experience as well! They know themselves, but still seem to have a piece of childhood they don’t let go of

  17. Elizabeth says:

    It turns out that my next door neighbor who I thought was 80 ish is actually 95. So I imagine I know a number of others from church without realizing it.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Well I never. People age in dramatically different ways.

  18. jameswharris says:

    To hear “Now, when I talk, I believe what I say.” suggests that they didn’t believe what they said before. Do many people say things they don’t believe? Or have I missed the point?

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I was startled too. And I think I got it wrong– maybe she said “I mean what I say.” Either way I recognize this as a truth: now I probably do less chattering, more listening. You are not a chatterer, I suspect, so let me explain. When you chatter, words tumble out of your mouth from excitement or an urge to be heard. Then you chatter more, correcting or explaining what you just said without thinking. It’s not a bad thing, it’s human. And with age it just might change.

  19. My 93 year old mother lives with me and she is a cheerful and positive presence every day.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      So good to hear.

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