70Candles! Women In Their 8th Decades

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Jane Giddan and Ellen Cole

On her move from Alaska to upstate New York, Ellen, stopped in Dallas, Texas, to visit Jane, her dearest ‘old friend’ since age 14. The pair were now approaching their 70th birthdays.

They shook their heads, unable to fathom the passage of time. They did not think of themselves as ‘old,’ which was a term that conjured up memories of their own grandmother’s knitting in their rocking chairs. Still energetic and contributing members of society, but without role models, both Ellen and Jane were both haunted by negative stereotypes of old ladies. They worried about the coming decades, but had not a clue about the reality of life at 70 and beyond.

Being academics, they began reading all they could find about aging in both scholarly and popular literature. They learned that there had been a gain of 30 additional years of life over the last century. They found lots of ‘old granny’ studies focused on decline, illness, decrepitude, and disability. Ellen’s husband suggested they write an article called Look At All The Pills On Granny’s Night Stand.

They knew there had to be more than that, so they decided to ask women themselves.

They assembled groups of women in or near their 70s in cities across the country. They developed a list of questions about the joys and challenges of turning 70, and each conversation group began to develop a life of its own. Conversations were inspiring and informative—lots of laughter and a few tears, many similar issues and some unique to the individual or the community. A group of African- American women, who grew up in the Jim Crow years, shared stories of past and present racism, and noted that ageism was not ‘their issue’. What every group had in common was valuing time spent sharing their personal thoughts, experiences, and feelings with other women of the same age.

For Jane and Ellen, the next logical step, then, was to start a blog, a place where women anywhere could gather together and join the conversation, virtually. Entries could be archived for ongoing interchanges. They sought and achieved a diverse, world-wide audience through 70Candles.com. There are more than 600 subscribers who get email notices when there is a new post, and there are untold casual participants. These people tend to find the blog through the 70 Candles Women Thriving In Their 8th Decade Facebook page, by seeing references to it in other books and articles, by word-of-mouth, or by randomly Googling some version of ‘turning 70,’ ‘women aging,’ or ‘my 70th birthday,’ as they search for connections.

Jane and Ellen were invited to post 70Candles! articles on HuffPost50, and their project was featured in two articles by Personal Health columnist Jane Brody in The New York Times. In 2015 they published their popular book, 70Candles! Women Thriving in Their 8th Decade.

To support requests for the formation of 70Candles! gatherings around the country, they produced a guidebook, 70Candles! Gatherings: A Leader’s Guide, and they’ve continued to meet for lively discussions with women’s groups, book groups, newcomers’ groups, senior residential groups, senior centre groups, and more. Ellen’s most recent presentation was to a welcoming group of retired nuns in upstate New York. 70Candles! Gatherings A Leader’s Guide, is available from amazon.com to help get groups up and going.

What have they learned in the ten years since this project began? Above all, they are convinced that women crave and value opportunities to share and examine with other women all that life has to offer in this decade of their lives. Health, family dynamics, personal circumstances, finances, one’s role in society, and present and future goals all offer challenges. Transition from the world of work to retirement is a discussion common theme for community members, and Jane and Ellen noticed this takes many forms. Some make a clean break, maybe voluntary, maybe not, without looking back. Others choose a gradual approach to stopping work. Others keep on working because they love what they do, or because they need the paycheck.

Grandparenting is also a popular topic. Jane and Ellen found that there are basically three kinds of grandmothers: those who move to be near their grandchildren and/or devote their lives to the role; those who love their grandchildren, but have neither the time nor interest in changing their own lives for the sake of theirs; and those somewhere in the middle.

Another major issue was the question about where to live in one’s later years. Many women stay where they are for financial reasons, for the desire to stay put, and so on. However, there is a national movement for seniors who choose to “age-in-place”. There is also what might be called a counter-movement to provide “senior living options” across the financial spectrum. Some older women, for reasons also related to finance, health or lifestyle, must or choose to leave their homes.

The project is now ten years old and Jane and Ellen are close to 80. They see that the blog themes of the baby boomers now entering their 70s are much like those of the decade that preceded them. Differences in their lives lie in the proliferation of technological advances with “smart” devices everywhere, medical advances keep improving replacement of parts that can wear out with time, such as hips, shoulders, knees, cochlear implants. Ubiquitous canes, walkers and scooters are getting snazzier, and, oh yes, white hair has become the current fashion.

Jane and Ellen plan to provide ongoing support for the blog as they turn 80 and beyond, and expect it will evolve as stories accumulate about the wider age span.