While ageing men are celebrated as sexy silver foxes, their female counterparts tend to slowly disappear from our screens – an example of how prejudices often leave older women sidelined. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Alex Casey talks to two women who are defying the expectations around old age.
At 82 years old, Elizabeth McRae has already died twice. Once was in a short-lived soap opera whose name she has forgotten, from a heart attack. The other was on the seemingly immortal soap opera Shortland Street, after her character got stuck in a lift and, yep, also had a heart attack. “It’s actually quite difficult to believe I’ve become this venerable age,” she says, chuckling, in the lounge of her Mt Eden villa. “I’ve become historical really.”
Best known for her iconic role as Marj Brasch, Shortland Street‘s gossipy receptionist-turned-politician, Elizabeth McRae is still gracing our screens two decades on. She squeezed in our interview between her busy shoot days on Prime’s The Brokenwood Mysteries, where she plays “ear to the ground nosey-parker” Jean Barlow. I ask her if she thought she would still be on television at 82. She scoffs. “Frankly, I didn’t think I’d be alive at 82.”
New Zealand has a rapidly growing population of older people, with the number aged over 65 doubling since 1981. Women represent 51.4% of that population, and have been found to feel the effects of isolation and loneliness in old age more acutely than men. One of the contributing factors to this could be the drop-off in employment, with only 16% of women remaining in part-time work after retirement age, compared to 29% of men. In a UK study, nearly half of the older women surveyed said that society expects them to vanish as they get older.
McRae got her job at Shortland Street when she was 55, and says the media treated her very differently to her younger co-stars. “They made me feel like I wasn’t as interesting as the youthful ones,” she says. “I remember being interviewed and people always asking me ‘do you feel like the mother of the show?’” She pauses, rolling her eyes. “I had to tell them no, of course I don’t at all feel like the mother of the other actors, that never came into it.”
She drew inspiration for the character of Marj from the women who attended her mother’s tea parties, personalities that often provided plenty of comedy. “Marj was definitely more lemon-lipped when she started out, but I think the writers realised that I could play comedy, so they started picking up on my strengths.” She found the role one of the easiest to slip in and out of, but never quite got used to people knowing her face – something that still happens to this day.
“I’ve got a face that everyone’s next door neighbour has. I still get people who come up to me and say ‘you taught me in Te Arawa’ or ‘you were our next door neighbour in Te Awamutu’. I wasn’t.”
Whereas McRae got her big TV break in her mid-50s, Colleen Bird’s life took a very different turn at 55. “My daughter passed away and my marriage of 35 years fell apart. I needed to do something, so I said to myself that if I can sell my house for the price I want, I’m going around the world.” The house sold and she booked her flights. “I gave away all the security I had held onto my whole life, but I wasn’t afraid. I just decided to carry on living.”
The first job she had on her travels was bartending in a rowdy English pub – something she had never done in her life. “Here I was, in my late fifties, working with all the young ones and having an absolute ball,” she says. “Everyone my age said ‘my god you’re brave, I wish I had the balls to do that’, but it’s actually a great time to do it because you’ve got a lot more maturity on your shoulders, you’ve got wisdom and you’ve been through life’s knocks.”
Now 71, Bird devotes much of her week to working and volunteering at Age Concern, an organisation that assists people over 65 years old with accommodation, social work, community outreach and upskilling programmes. For the past three years Bird’s been regularly visiting a woman, Gwen, who is 101 years old. “I take her meals and home baking and we sit and chat and there’s a really nice rapport there. We’re like family now.”
Through both her own experience and her Age Concern work, she’s learned a lot about how society perceives people past middle age. “People think older women are past it, that we should be sitting in the rocking chair at home,” she says. “Sometimes I think they don’t even realise we have a brain.” With her 101 year old friend, they discuss every topic under the sun. “We talk about everything – gay rights, tattoos, young single mothers. She’s really amazing.”
McRae echoes that sentiment. One of her most recent lessons from her grandchildren was around non-conforming gender terminology. “Sometimes you can really feel like wallpaper, that you are just part of the decoration.” she says. “People assume you stop learning and you stop being interested in things when you’re older, but I’ve never stopped.” Her wit remains as sharp as ever, something she chalks up to her multiple book clubs and poetry nights.
Another common misconception is that older women are easily shocked. “We’re absolutely not,” says McRae. “If anything we’re going to be less shocked. We know everything.” Bird has encountered the same prejudice, often feeling as if people hold back around her in conversation when the content gets risqué. “If you’re with a lot of young people, they will ignore you because they assume you won’t be able to understand what they are talking about.
“I’m always reminding my grandchildren that I did actually live a life when I was young. Nothing is new. We all did them, and I probably understand them better than you do. “Believe you me –” she pauses, dropping her voice for emphasis, “I did some crazy, crazy things.”
Despite decades in a job that relies on people looking at her face, McRae never felt she had to change her looks. “It never mattered to me. I never put a big price on beauty anyway – I probably improved with age in some ways.” She’s never even been a fan of wearing make-up. “That’s what I found difficult about Shortland Street. Having my hair styled and face made up every day was very –” she leans back in her leather armchair, choosing her words “– trying.”
Of course, not all women can resist the pressure to stay looking young. The choice to get cosmetic help is one which Bird says she would never judge. “Look, if someone wants to go and have a facelift and they can afford it and it will make them feel better, good luck to them. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with my face having a few lines on it. I call them my laughter lines and I love them because I’ve earned them.”
While you are being bombarded to watch for the seven signs of ageing, worry about your collagen levels and look for the difference between static and dynamic wrinkles, you probably won’t hear much about the good parts of ageing. “For the first time in my life, I can wake up think ‘oh, what I am going to do today’,” McRae says. “It can be a luxury. You can stay in bed longer, you don’t have to get the breakfast on and get the kids out to school.”
Of course, too much time on your hands can have adverse effects. Isolation and loneliness is a huge problem in the ageing community, one that Bird argues could be combatted by the younger generation reaching out. “I’d love to see young people connecting more with older people, it’s good for them. Walk to the shops for them, have a chat, take them for a drive, have a little more respect, you know what I mean? There’s so much untapped wisdom there.”
Still, younger people should try to remain mindful of an ageing person’s actual needs, says McRae, because maintaining a sense of independence is important. “I’ve found there’s a fine line between helping out an elderly person and leaving them to sort it on their own. You know, sometimes people help me and it makes me feel like I’m 105, but other times I’m really grateful for an arm to lean on.”
The thing to hold onto above all else is a positive attitude, says Bird, referencing another woman she visits who nursed her husband, had bowel cancer and had both breasts removed – all in her nineties. “Someone like her has been through the knocks, but you’ll never hear her complain. I know it’s easier said than done, but you get a lot further in life with sugar than you do with salt. I keep a good attitude. I don’t act old and I don’t feel old, so I don’t get treated old.”
There’s one more crucial ingredient. “Every single day that I wake up, I’m grateful,” she says.
“I’m just so grateful to be alive.”
This content was created in paid partnership with Women’s Health Action. Learn more about our partnerships here.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.