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Obviously I’d rather be a wise elder than older and no wiser, says Paula Coston

October 5, 2013
Wise woman. Image courtesy of Graur Razvan Ionut/

Wise woman. Image courtesy of Graur Razvan Ionut/

Hi all. Already, I’ve celebrated here my role of older-woman-turned-matriarch (see my post ‘I’m a matriarch, and proud’). But I find myself returning to the theme, albeit from a slightly different angle.

Given our ageing demographic, society’s increasingly preoccupied with the question of how to retain cognitive function in both genders as they age. For me it’s a small step from this to ponder how, across cultures and the span of history, older people might not only retain a lot of their marbles but come to be valued, generally, more highly, to be seen as an invaluable source of wisdom, experience and even spiritual enlightenment.

You know me: I like to focus on women. Poet, ‘womanist’, activist and author of The Color Purple Alice Walker once claimed as if defying contradiction, ‘Clearly older women, and especially older women who have led an active life or elder women who successfully manoeuvre through their own family life, have so much to teach us about sharing, patience and wisdom.’ Feminist, journalist, political and social activist Gloria Steinem, herself now 79, speculates that ‘Women may be the one group that grows more radical with age.’ And Carre Otis, the model and actress, a spring-to-summer chicken at the age of 45, believes that ‘Just as young people absorb all kinds of messages from the media, young girls learn what it means to be a woman by watching the older women in their lives.’

The Warmth of your Heart Prevents your Body from Rusting,’ Marie de Hennezel declares in the title of her book about ‘ageing without growing old’, messaging us that a loving, positive outlook can do much to counteract the negative physical and mental aspects of ageing. (Sadly though, this is a dreary, hateful book: it’s somehow superior and unempathetic in tone, biased in favour of rosy scenarios of ageing while yet depressingly choosing to focus overmuch on scenarios of the elderly living in those most doomladen of places, old people’s homes.)

Luckily there are some more genuinely positive, thought-provoking books about ageing – notably ageing in women – around. A few are For Women Growing Older: The Animus by J.H. Wheelwright (1984) – out of print, but you can find stuff about it on the web; Conscious Femininity: Interviews with Marion Woodman (Inner City Books, 1993); Conscious Femininity: A Speech by Marion Woodman (September 2004); and I. Stuart-Hamilton’s article ‘Women’s Attitudes to Ageing: Some Factors of Relevance to Gerontology’ in Education and Aging, 13, pp 67-88. If you want something lighter and more accessible, look at the website ‘A better life: Old age, new thoughts’ at, which is full of inspiring and endearing portraits of older people with positive life attitudes.

Wouldn’t it be great, these sources imply, if women (and men) were able to move in later life into a whole new phase, marked out with its own, happy life tasks? One of our roles might be that of ‘active elders’ in our communities, coaching, mentoring, advising others: giving them the benefit of our experience and perspectives. Another of our functions might be serious ‘inner work’, nurturing our own spiritual and emotional awareness and self-development. I hear that some call this ‘conscious ageing’.

Turning to folklore and traditional tales. In 1982, A. Chinen wrote a chapter entitled ‘Fairytales as Commentary on Adult Development and Aging’ in The Encyclopaedia of Adult Development; in 1989, a book, In the Ever After: Fairy Tales and the Second Half of Life. His studies of how fairy and traditional tales portray older people, including women, are fascinating. In 1992, he described the major developmental tasks for older age in stories as tasks concerned with transcendence, wisdom and self-knowledge; in 1989, he remarked how, in fairytales, ‘Fortune comes to [the elder] in the middle of ordinary, everyday chores, and the elder’s task is to be open to this unexpected magic…. [The virtues of] the elder are alertness, openness, and curiosity.’ He also judges that ‘Elder tales depict the same tasks for men and women in the second half of life: self-confrontation, self-transcendence, and the emancipation of society.’

Wow. Ambitious, but as a stage of life to look forward to, it sounds good to me.

By now well and truly hooked on traditional stories and lore for enlightenment on my potential impending role, I flick through Marina Warner’s amazing book From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairytales and their Tellers (1994). This gives rather more female-centric insights. Among a myriad other aspects of womanhood – and of female ageing – from oral and traditional literature, in words and pictures she delves into the phrase the ‘old wives’ tale’.

Warner tells us that George Peele was the first to use it as a title in his comedy The Old Wives’ Tale (1590), in which an old ‘Gammer’ (Granny) relates the story. Apparently the word ‘Gammer’ carried strong undertones of chattiness. Such tales became a genre of tales, narrated orally to amuse but also to frighten children. Another connotation of such older women in stories dates back to Plato: when Athens’ youngsters were about to embark for Crete to be sacrificed to the Minotaur, he describes old women accompanying them to tell them tales that would distract and console them. So words from the older female weren’t merely silly gabbling: in some tales, they expressed real female sympathy and understanding, and provided comfort.

Needless to say, as a single woman I baulk somewhat at the term ‘wife’; so it’s a tonic to read of ‘spinster’ elders too in Warner. Isidore of Seville (d. 636) gave what Warner calls a ‘sceptical definition of the pagan idea of fate and the Fates’ when she commented: ‘”They say that fate is whatever the gods declare…. Thus they say that fate derives from fando, that is, from speaking…. The fiction is that there are three Fates, who spin a woollen thread on a distaff, on a spindle, and with their fingers, on account of the threefold nature of time: the past, which is already spun and wound onto the spindle; the present, which is drawn between the spinner’s fingers; and the future, which lies in the wool twined on the distaff, and which must still be drawn out by the fingers of the spinner onto the spindle, as the present is drawn to the past.”‘ And as we know, the fates as characters, in traditional lore, often become indistinguishable from fairies.

So in some tales, women elders seem a repository of more than wisdom: they’re portrayed with the span (excuse the pun) of the whole of time in their hands.

It’s sad that none the less, to this day, the term ‘old wives’ tale’ remains ambiguous at best, if not pejorative.

Of course, older men as much as older women have always told folktales and fairytales, and equally feature in them. But long-told stories featuring and interpreting dreams (‘wonder tales’) serve, as Warner puts it, to ‘deepen the sympathy between the social category women occupy and fairytale. Fairytales exchange knowledge between an older voice of experience and a younger audience….’ She even argues that storytelling at the hearth, while doing boring, seemingly neverending household tasks, has for centuries been women’s opportunity to ‘preach’ in a way ‘forbidden them in other situations’. And she reminds us that ‘Fairytale is essentially a moralizing form.’

You could even infer, I suppose, that women’s stories have been, on occasion, a subversive form of ‘wise eldering’. As an ageing sometime story writer and novelist, I’d like to sign up to that covert role.

This post is dedicated to the incomparable Marina Warner: Marina, thanks.

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