In a welcome break from peeling potatoes, filling the dishwasher, wondering who used all the bath water, resisting the lure of the off-licence and juggling my seasonal monkey nuts, I recently found myself chairing an online discussion on middle age, as part of the Bealtaine festival.
An annual celebration of the arts and creativity as we age, Bealtaine was obliged this year, like so much else, to repackage itself to fit down a Zoom lens. The panellists for the discussion were the visual and performance artist John Byrne; creative director Pearse McCaughey, a former president of the Institute of Creative Advertising and Design; and the medical gerontologist Prof Rose Anne Kenny, director of Mercer’s Institute for Successful Ageing and principal investigator for the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (Tilda). All were a welcome addition to my lonely box bedroom on that crisp autumnal Thursday afternoon.
I’m generally less suspicious and fearful of screwing up on live online events than I used to be. Sure, you may inadvertently disable the chat function and forget to mute yourself when you’re hissing at the wheezy cat, but you can still entertain yourself with the notion that any of the talented and articulate talking heads on your computer screen might actually have feet shod in bunny slippers.
When I closed my box bedroom door I felt energised, connected, a little more able for the darkening evening
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the Bealtaine discussion, in what is undoubtedly a bleak and stressful time for many of us, regardless of age and stage, was its palpable optimism and sense of hope.
Byrne, whose large-scale public artwork Dublin’s Last Supper, created in 2004, will be familiar to many of the capital’s inhabitants, spoke about the playful and freeing nature of his art. (Other works he is known for include a Border souvenir shop displaying miniature watchtowers and – unrelatedly – a spot of hula-hooping in a cathedral.) At 60, without any artificial retirement date threatening his process, Byrne believes his best work is still ahead of him.
McCaughey, having spent decades working in advertising, spoke about the trapdoor that can open under you as you age in that youthful industry. Despite the economic power of the over-50s, consumers of that vintage, too, are often treated by advertisers as being solely in need of multivitamins, holiday insurance, cat flaps and padded knickers.
Currently doing a PhD at University College Dublin and enjoying the intellectual freedom of studenthood, McCaughey described the surge of energy he experienced from finally making it to university in his 50s. The joy of that late release from the quotidian is something I can testify to as well.
The panel spoke (and I’m paraphrasing wildly here) of a need to somehow redefine people’s identities (especially men’s) so that they are more than their job descriptions and less vulnerable to a sense of loss when, through age or shifting economies, their paid work is gone.
I had been a little nervous of meeting Prof Kenny, feeling as I did dull-headed, unconcentrated and altogether lessened by Covid life. I didn’t trust my questioning to unlock the knowledge behind her list of accreditations and the breadth of her work.
I shouldn’t have worried. Lucid, entertaining and warmly engaging, she dispensed her advice clearly and precisely, and left me feeling more upbeat about the future.
She spoke, and again I’m paraphrasing, of positivity and preparedness, of the power of friendships, of how a walk or a chat or a shared supper with a friend can enhance our wellbeing, both mentally and physically. Interestingly, she also reflected on how family interactions can sometimes have the opposite effect, mired as they are in history and complication.
She also pointed out, in these times of increased isolation, the benefits of opening up a screen and sharing a mealtime with someone. Whether virtual or actual, the breaking of bread together is, it seems, a necessary part of our functioning; we are social animals, ordinary humans in extraordinary times.
She spoke, too, about sex, and how, like many of the other good things in life, it can get better and better as we age. I really wanted to hear more about that, but I was running out of battery – and that’s actually not a euphemism, just a sign of my rocky professionalism.
Anyway, if you missed it, the discussion, No One Expects the Middle Ages, and other events from the Bealtaine festival, produced by Age and Opportunity, will be available online at bealtaine.ie in the coming weeks. I mention it because, in truth, when I closed my box bedroom door I felt energised, connected, a little more able for the darkening evening. You might too.