A gym class for older exercisers

Mature people stretch after physical training. Photo U.S. Air Force
Mature people stretch after physical training. Photo U.S. Air Force

My personal trainer (oh that sounds pretentious) is soon to start a class for the over-60s. I must admit I have hassled her over this, with pep talks about growing the business, extending her client base, and the splendid loyalty of older people once we find a regular activity that suits our needs. Truth is, the strength classes that I had enjoyed had been cancelled, and I was longing for an appropriate class. I can’t wait.

While attending normal Crossfit classes, I began to analyse just how my needs differed from the other patrons. I’d guess the majority are in their 20s–40s, with one or two 50+. But I didn’t spot anyone else in their 70s at the time.

My friends over 60 were also unwitting case studies. My dance group friends all have their own programmes, because they are active, kinetic people. I see them swimming or aqua-jogging, or out walking, or off to Pilates or yoga or another dance event. I’ve been thinking about their needs and likes, as well as my own.

What I notice about older people exercising

  1. A wide range of abilities: they vary far more than do those of younger people.
  2. We need to work on balance to prevent falls. Tai Chi (for me), yoga for my friends.
  3. Stretching is crucial — and potentially painful— for people with arthritis.
  4. Getting up from sitting is a timed test of fitness for older people and a big problem with low soft chairs.
  5. My friend Jan runs an exercise group and every week they practice getting up from lying on the floor: this is a potential life-saver when old people fall. (The Feldenkrais corkscrew method is a cunning trick, but everyone is different.)
  6. It’s probably better to use hand weights than bars.
  7. It’s not essential to keep increasing weights. Lowering weights slowly can have even greater impact with older people (AUT research).
  8. Some (I) get dizzy from low blood pressure: so please, no exercises that require tipping the head or sudden head movements, no fast spurts of running, skipping, and OMG no burpees!
  9. Some (I) get dizzy from low oxygen intake: that’s different, and better breathing helps. I hope this will reduce as I get fitter 🙂
  10. Stress incontinence is common: so beware of making us skip and jump.
  11. Some older people need the option of doing exercises sitting down.
  12. Music: not loud (we hate that) — take it easy but no golden oldies from the 1940s please.
  13. KISS: keep instructions super-simple. None of that 2 x 200 @ 50%, 1 x 200 @ 75% 3 x 400 @ 90% business. Our short-term memory may be short but we have other qualities.
  14. I want to be pushed but not hurried!

Recent research on the impact of exercise on older brains and bodies

We older people get VERRRRRRY worried about Alzheimers and other cognitive decline so any research about how exercise reduces that risk is really encouraging. HIIT is all the rage at present, but of course we need a variety of forms. Bernard Levine’s programme sort of fits with what I aim to do. He sounds very sensible.

Do you like to exercise in a class?

Most older gym members seem to exercise independently, or with a group of friends, rather than attend classes. But I’m assuming, rightly or wrongly, that at least some people over 60 would would like to include an appropriate weekly class or two at the gym in their personal exercise regime.

Gym classes are not the whole picture. (I also love to dance and walk and swim, and sometimes I even embark on a feeble jog nowadays.) But a great gym class is a natty combination of supervision, structure, and socialising. Am I alone in this view?

How can we maintain our identity as we grow old?

Child contemplates two women turned to stone
Is this my future? A child contemplates two women turned to stone.

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In which, despite a disheartening deterioration of the ageing body and some ill-judged wardrobe choices, I discover a salutary harmony between the front I present to the world and my subjective experience of a dislocated identity.

“Be who you are”

That’s the eleventh challenge in my boot camp for old age, in which I work on improving my chances in the brain-gain lottery that lies ahead. This particular task is to figure out my changing identity — I’m changing into an old person — and starting to live with it instead of fight it.

Another way of putting this: I would prefer my outside to match my inside, for people to look at me and get an accurate idea of who I am and what I feel like inside. I’ve been searching for an inherent personal coherence, consonance, or harmony.

But this is not straightforward, because right now life is rapidly changing my outside. Grey hair, wrinkles and all that cranky stuff that shrieks “Old lady! Old lady!” — when inside, I’m still a bit confused. Like you (I presume) I have moments of feeling like a 6- or 26- or 36- or 56-year-old, which are all a big mis-match with my chronological age.

OK, I’ve had 12 months to complete the boot camp. Plenty of time, huh? You’d think so. But over the summer I got lazy, wallowing in late mornings and a dormant business and sweet sunshine, socialising and sea-swims.

The fruit of procrastination: a list

  1. Right now I sort of match how I feel: a vigorous 76 and I look like a vigorous … 70, perhaps? Not bad consonance.
  2. I’ve always enjoyed choosing what to wear and I still do, it’s fun. But nowadays I make more mistakes than previously. I never look like an old fuddy duddy (not in my own eyes, anyway) but I do sometimes look slightly ridiculous. I think that’s fine, that’s definitely a pass. Because this combination of sartorial qualities is a good match for how I perceive myself: not young but youthful; vibrant (colours); original to the point of seeming a bit “off” at times. I’m just me.
  3. A few people “get me”, people to whom I never have to explain my jokes or my serious opinions. That’s enough. I only need a few people to see right into my real self.
  4. Just as I’m scrutinising my own external appearance and inner self, I’m also scrutinising others. I’m discovering a new delight in seeing friends and strangers with new eyes. Far from thinking, “Why do you always wear that boring old cardigan/jeans/fleece/sneakers?” I find myself thinking, “Look at you! I see you: you are yourself through and through, and you are like nobody else in the entire world — how wonderful is that!”

We are who we are. Was there any need for this challenge at all? For you, probably not. For me, maybe.

Image by W Heath Robinson in ‘Old Time Stories’ 1921

So many friends! How did that happen?

A birthday party. Birthday girl is 70 years younger than 75. Image Mary Mapes Hodge, public domain

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Long read, written in 2015. In which I notice with astonishment that I have many friends, and compare them to a trampoline.


Back in February I abruptly decided to throw a party for my 75th birthday. I’d never had a biggish party at my place, because the layout was difficult—steep narrow stairs, one hard-to-find bathroom, and so forth. But suddenly the penny dropped.. With caterers, the layout would be manageable. With a new bathroom upstairs, traffic flow was simplified. With a new-old couch, visitors could overflow into in the study. I got a handrail for the staircase, and behold,  this party was a goer.

Whipping through my memory and contact list, I was amazed at how many people are closely involved in my life. It helps to belong to a big family, even though only two of my sisters could make it. I am still remembering people I should have and would have asked, given more time to think. But even with very short notice, friends and family filled my apartment nicely.

My friend Liz made an enormous heart-stompingly luscious double-chocolate cake, family blew up balloons, and like Hansel and Gretel I laid a trail of glitter on the footpath to my place. Caterers arrived in plenty of time, establishing a calm and competent atmosphere. Ready? Ready. Time to party!

What do you say at your 75th birthday party? At cake-cutting time I shared my thoughts about all these people in my life, and why I was surprised to find myself surrounded by them.

I was a late starter with friendship

I was at high school when I made a friend for the first time. Before that, I wasn’t lonely—I had five sisters, for goodness’ sake, and we comprised a ready-made, self-contained community, so who needed friends? People were friendly to me, but I wasn’t particularly interested in them. Family relationships and the contents of my own head seemed generally more exciting. I needed feeding from within and I still do.

In other words, I was born a happy introvert and only popped out of my own head occasionally to communicate with my family and cope with school. I talked, I listened sometimes, but people outside the family didn’t seem quite … real.

Then along came Elisabeth. Funny, witty, outrageous. Rule follower, rule breaker. Thoughtful, conscientious, and often silly. Also from a family of sisters. Someone who was most emphatically my very own personal friend.

That was the turning point. Very soon I discovered that I already did have other friends: I just hadn’t noticed them. Gosh, people were interesting—who knew?

I’m still happy to sit in a paddock all alone for months at a time writing a book. My own company is still a precious commodity and by now I love it far too much. I’d probably go mad in a marriage. But I looked around at my birthday party in surprise. Gee, so many friends? How did that happen? Somewhere along the way I must have got the knack.

Friends, meet my friends

Until you clap eyes on them, other people’s friends and relatives leave only a fuzzy impression.

My friends must get sick of me saying, “I’ve got to meet John…” “Kate’s at the Coberg Salsa Festival…” “Elke says to try less hard…” “Jan’s making us do a whole dance with our knees bent…” Sometimes they can’t help thinking very loudly, “Who’s Karl? Who’s Kate? Who’s Elke? Who’s Jan?”

This party was a chance to muster friends from different batches into a single room.

Members of my family. My business partner. Capital Choir friends. Dancing mates from Crows Feet Dance Collective. My writing buddy. Neighbourhood friends. Friends from Feldenkreis classes. Literary friends. Ukulaliens. And one-off friends who pop up out of nowhere.

“See,” I said, “John is a real person. Meet my sisters Lesley and Deirdre. Look, here are three of my solid gold children, Geoff, Kate and Diana. Say hello to Rebecca and Elsie and Celia.. Meet Felicia, Anne, Denise, John, Richard, Austin…” Strangers had a chance to put faces to some of the magic names.

You are my trampoline

Trampolining. Photo by Twins Watch 7/08 (co07) on Flickr cc-by-2.0

You, my lovely people, provide structure to my week and my year. I meet some of you at ukulele group on Mondays, others at choir on Tuesdays, others at Crows on Wednesday, and so forth. You keep me safe.

You know those fantastic modern trampolines enclosed in a safety net? I think of myself as bouncing up and down and up and down as high as I can, and I always land on the same place and I never fall off.

That’s only possible because of my people. These special people, my family and friends, keep me bouncing and they also keep me safe from hurting myself.

Without my people, I’m not sure whether I would even be me. I am amazed to think this thought, that our very identity may depend heavily on who is in our life. Maybe that’s not true. Maybe it’s true and unhealthy. Anyway, I’m turning that thought over in my  mind.

Please Friend me—no, don’t!

Someone asks to Friend you on Facebook… You sort of know them… Decisions, decisions…

A Facebook account broadcasts your apparent popularity. “431 friends” means no such thing. It means that 431 people including real life friends and relatives, plus acquaintances, plus random contacts of acquaintances who happen to be on Facebook have drifted into your orbit.

Please Friend me! Well, no — actually, I would much rather you liked or followed this blog or commented on one of the posts. Here am I writing away at my desk, spilling my heart out as part of a personal boot camp for old age, and wonder if anyone is interested. Hello, hello?

And seriously, I feel excited and lucky whenever someone makes a comment or likes a post or follows my blog . Like everyone, I need a bit of encouragement now and then, so thank you very much.

Make two new friends every year and dodge the loneliness trap

Spartan girls with cithara. (Public domain image)

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Long read, written in 2015. In which I accidentally make three new friends and thereby diminish my chances of suffering from loneliness in old age.


One goal of my boot camp for old age is to make at least two new friends this year and every year. Now why would I set myself such a goal? I think you know.

Loneliness is a scourge of the old. Loneliness is a killer, and I’m not exaggerating. Some research findings:

  • Risk of early death caused by loneliness was double the impact caused by obesity.
  • Scientists tracked more than 2,000 people aged 50 and over and found that the loneliest were nearly twice as likely to die during the six-year study than the least lonely.
  • Dementia, high blood pressure, alcoholism, accidents, depression, paranoia, anxiety and suicide, become more prevalent with social isolation.

When you’re the last one standing

You probably know some very old people who have lost all their personal friends. Over the years, every friend has either moved away to Florida or the Gold Coast or Tauranga, or passed away. That’s a sad thing to see and an even sadder way to be.

So how can we avoid falling into the lonely trap? I didn’t set this goal because I am lonely. If anything, there are far too many wonderful people in my life for me to keep up with. But, you see, I’m just a spring chicken so far, and things change.

I assume that most people find it harder to make new friends as they get older, and I figure that making new friends—just like going to the gym—should become a solid habit, an expectation, an automatic behaviour. Then we’re more likely to stick with that habit to the very end.

When Mim, my grandmother, went to hospital for her final few weeks, she made friends left, right and centre. All the staff loved being with her because she was so interested in them, and of course such a fascinating person herself. So she died attended by new friends as well as old friends and family.

We can’t all be fascinating, but we can be interested in others.

A friend is a friend, no more, no less

By friend, I don’t mean a best buddy, necessarily. If when you think about a person, you pause, picture them and smile, that’s a friend.

The beauty of old friends is that they share memories and know each other inside out. They can reminisce together, see the shape of their lives whole, trust each other, communicate volumes with a single word or a raised eyebrow.

The beauty of new friends is that they do not share memories or know each other inside out. Every new friend is truly a wonder, for that very reason. There are brand new stories to hear and a chance to tell your own stories in a brand new way.

New friend mission for 2015: check!

This year I have exceeded my target without even trying. There’s Esther, new to our body corporate and a delightful ally in all matters financial and managerial. And Viv, who adorns, inspires and amuses our bumbling local group of Ukulaliens. And Jas, who provides spirited conversation over coffee every month or so.

Luckily, two of my three new friends are at least 20 years younger than me.

Big effort, no effort: both can win friends

Sometimes, you certainly do need to get out there, join a club, take the initiative. When I first came to live in Wellington, I religiously phoned one acquaintance every week to make a date for dinner or a movie or whatever: I had to push myself in their faces. It’s the same whenever you move to a new place. Then it’s not enough to say you’d like to join a book club: you have to get out there and find one or start one.

But I spy an anomaly. On the one hand, making two new friends every year is now my conscious, chosen, publicly documented goal. On the other hand, I forgot all about it until I revisited my boot camp list and realised this one was already done and dusted.

I have a hunch that this sneaky win was not a coincidence. Maybe the most successful friend-acquisition programmes are based on not-trying. Instead, to make friends, maybe we just need to keep our minds and eyes and doors open. Just do stuff and talk to people. Oops, you just made a friend!

How we talk about death

Skeletons dancing
English Dance of Death. You gotta laugh.

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In which I look back over the relationship of Death and me, see a pattern, and get overly personal.


Me and Death

“I can’t wait to die!” I was about seven when I horrified my mother Celia with this thrilling idea. “Because it’ll be such a great adventure! I can’t wait to see what happens!”

Rachel Taylor, 5 years old
A happy, normal little girl

“I can’t wait” didn’t mean that I really was in a hurry to die. I wasn’t that sort of kid. On the contrary, my personality was summed up for all time by a family carer who knew me very well:

“I can’t believe it was Rachel who became a writer. She was just a happy, normal little girl who used to blow her nose on the sheets.”

For this morbid childhood fascination, you could blame the Anglican church or my career choices. One of my ambitions was to be an explorer in deepest Africa and I saw death as the ultimate uncharted territory.


Death of an aunt

Death had touched our family already, which was perhaps another reason for Celia’s horror at my casual regard for death. Our four grandparents were very much alive, but Celia’s sister Lesley died of tuberculosis in her thirties. Her story was heartbreaking: she was young and bright and dramatically beautiful with a dashing RAF officer husband and a baby girl as cute as Sailor Girl.

Aunty Lesley’s tragedy fascinated me at an impressionable age, and I would visualise my family and fans weeping around my deathbed saying how beautiful and clever and above all how saintly I had been and oh the loss to the world.

In my child’s mind, not a jot of awareness of my mother’s grief. I just didn’t get it, not at all, not a bit. I’m sorry about that, but then again—I was just a kid.

Death of Katherine Mansfield

New Zealand postage stamp with portrait of Katherine Mansfield


When I discovered that Katherine Mansfield had died of tuberculosis, the romantic appeal of death was intensified. Yes, death had a glamour—but I was constitutionally ill-suited to the pale and melancholy look I aspired to. I would suck in my cheeks and gaze into the distance and do my best to loll and droop—but within seconds I would revert to smiling, healthy, and (terrible thought) normal again.

Real death versus literary death

Parker-HulmeRound two with death happened when I was 14. Two ex-classmates, Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker, committed a murder that sent a massive wave of salacious excitement through the country and affected me in ways I still haven’t resolved. This event shattered the cognitive dissonance that had enabled me to read Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh murder stories for entertainment. A literary murder was neat and tidy and thinkable. A real murder was unthinkable, fraught with guilt, panic, and pain.

Getting serious about death

In my poetry and other writing, death is a frequent protagonist or bystander. But hey, let’s not attach too much significance to this: I’m a poet, and death is one of our standard topics. At one point, it even seemed de rigueur for woman poets to die young for the sake of credibility.

However, I have a confession.  I did waste a few months planning my own suicide, and the go-dead date was getting close. Luckily I snapped out of the mind-set that had made this plan seem so wise, so thoughtful, so ingenious, so altruistic. A counsellor told me exactly what to do instead. I have learned that this syndrome is not uncommon, and it seemed to serve a purpose at the time.

Death at one remove demands a light touch

Look at those stories, so frivolously told! I am amazed at the way we can joke about death — as long as it’s not close to home. It must be a survival mechanism.

Don’t worry: I do know that death is not funny, not glamorous, not literary, not trivial, and usually not kind to others.

I’m glad I waited.

How about you? What episodes shaped your early attitudes to death?

Discipline, dance and dangerously high expectations: what a way to treat old people!

At TEDx 2015 in Auckland, New Zealand, the remarkable Billie Jordan explained how and why she formed the Hip Operation Crew, the oldest dance troupe in the world, average age 80.

Her dramatic story highlights the unwitting cruelty of agism: society has extremely low expectations of old people. You’re expected (required?) to slow down and pull out of the flow of life. Your useful working life is over, and your reward (or punishment) is to retire from living, out of sight, out of the way … without actually dying. This may be meant kindly, but it is totally demoralizing and a kind of abuse. “We should increase the pace, turn it up full throttle,” says Jordan.

Why Jordan cares about how older people are treated

Traumatised by the Christchurch killer earthquake, she moved to Waiheke Island where she felt isolated and depressed, and worse: she had an intense fear of dying. Nobody expected anything from her. She felt worthless. She saw no future for herself. It was like being … very old.

She empathised with the old people she saw, rounded them up for flash mob duty. Then she decided to set an impossibly high goal. She announced boldly that she would form the local old people into a dance group and send them to the world championships of hip hop in Las Vegas. And by gum that’s exactly what she did. “We made this pact. If anyone died during a dance, we would step over them and carry on dancing.”

Self-fulfilling prophecies in action

Her demanding style and high expectations horrified the locals at first, and transformed the dancers. They stopped talking about the past and all their talk is now about the future.

Of her 22 dancers, four use mobility aids, five have had open heart surgery, all have arthritis, six are deaf, one is blind and five have dementia. “It’s manageable,”says Billie drily.

Do watch Billie Jordan, once, twice, three times. She may transform your view of old age. This is compassion in action: relentless. And funny.

The Hip Operation is not a casual class, it’s not passive entertainment, and not everyone can stand the pace. It’s a sort of boot camp for the elderly. As for the dancers who commit and carry on, their doctors say they’re happier and healthier than they’ve ever been.

How about you? Do you think society expects too little or too much of older people?

Alzheimer’s Association International Conference 2015: we know how to lower the risk, so why don’t we?

Vintage drawing of a young woman smoking
A change of lifestyle would protect this young lady against dementia: more dancing, less tobacco

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In which five tips for minimizing the risk of Alzheimer’s are shared and ignored by the people most in need, although it’s never too late to benefit.

For years now, research into Alzheimer’s disease has had a clear theme: Change your lifestyle to protect your brain.

In July 2015, the Alzheimer’s Association held its international conference in Washington DC. Afterwards, they summarised some of the findings in a press release so perfect that it was re-published word-for-word by numerous newspapers—a comms officer’s dream.

No surprises, just big data confirming now familiar, common-sense advice.

We already knew what we can do to lessen the likelihood of getting Alzheimer’s, and now we know it more surely than ever. No surprises, just more proof.

Making these lifestyle changes “looks more promising than the drug studies so far,” said Dr. Richard Lipton of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, whose lab researches what makes up healthy aging. The findings on stress prompted Lipton to take up yoga.

The facts keep rolling in: lifestyle changes have significant impact

  1. Sleep better: 6,000+ people studied. Poor sleep is linked to mild cognitive impairment and later, Alzheimer’s. So go to bed earlier or get help. It’s worth it.
  2. Learn something new and complex: 7,000 older adults studied. Dementia risk is lower by good school grades and work demanding expertise. So work your brain: it’s worth it.
  3. Exercise, doh! 3,200 young adults studied for 25 years. The least active had the worst cognition when they were middle-aged. We knew that. So why wouldn’t you up your exercise regime? It’s worth it.
  4. Keep in touch and destress. 8,000 seniors studied for over a decade. Isolated people and those who brood over stressful events are more likely to develop mild cognitive impairment. That’s why my personal Boot Camp for Old Age includes “Make two new friends this year and every year” and “Raise the level of meditation practice.” Why wouldn’t you? It’s worth it.
  5. Eat healthy: no numbers supplied, but Lipton’s lab found a healthy diet lowered seniors’ risk of impaired executive function as they got older. Why wouldn’t you? It’s worth it.