19 Nov 2023

Rachel McAlpine: Is life worth living after 90?

From Sunday Morning, 5:45 pm on 19 November 2023


Writer Rachel McAlpine was shocked to the core when her GP predicted she would live to 99.

Like most people, she had opinions about very old age but no experience. 

She asked local people in their 90s about their lives and found their revelations broke all the stereotypes. She also walked the footpaths of Wellington asking people how they see their life unfolding at 90. 

Her new play The Secret Lives of Extremely Old People erupted from those conversations. 

McAlpine is the author of 30 books, has produced podcasts about ageing, and in 2020 published a poetry collection called How to Be Old.

She describes herself as "still not very old" at the age of 83, so she needed the views of people older than herself to help her pen her new play.

"I rushed out and interviewed a bunch of people... between 90 and 101 to be absolutely precise, to see what they thought."

McAlpine also walked the footpaths of Wellington asking people of all ages how they imagined their life would be at the age of 95.

"There's a kind of ageism where we look at an old person and we think 'Urgh, I would hate to be like that, I can't bear it'. And we don't realise that we are future old people," she said.

Rachel McAlpine

Rachel McAlpine Photo: thecubapress.nz

Her own interviews found most people aged over 90 felt "overwhelmingly lucky".

"That is not what you think when you look at a little old lady or man sitting having trouble walking or seeing or hearing. It's very different from the outside.

"The most negative comment was 'On the whole, I'm glad to be alive but not opposed to dying'.

"But several of them said 'I'm just so happy to wake up in the morning'."

McAlpine cited a 2021 United Nations report that said 50 percent of people held ageist attitudes, which cost the world $US63 billion a year.

The economy would benefit if more people aged over 55 were employed, while ageist attitudes meant older people sometimes missed out on essential healthcare services, the report said.

Depression could be caused by internalised ageism and elderly people with negative beliefs about ageing were more likely to forget to take medications, it said.

McAlpine lets elderly people tell their own stories in The Secret Lives of Extremely Old People.

"Our mission is theatre against ageism.

"I want all the future old people in the audience to walk out with a dose of hope, based in reality."

The play features actors from a wide range of age groups.

Lloyd Scott, who retired from RNZ in 2017 after 53 years of service, is the oldest actor who appears in the play, while the youngest is 45.

"It kind of reflects how you are when you're old. You're all ages - sometimes you might feel like you're five years old. You almost never feel like a 95 year old.

"Most people of that age, maybe 80 percent of them apparently, feel about 20 years younger."

Swimming, blogging and dancing make McAlpine's life worth living at 83 and she hopes for a vibrant future.

"What you imagine and hope for and expect has got a way of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. We actually know that now." she said.

McAlpine's 90-minute play, directed by Robin Payne, will be performed at Circa Theatre in Wellington from 25 November until 17 December.