Maggy Pigott CBE enjoyed a distinguished 37-year career in the legal profession before retiring. She chatted to me about her transition into retirement and how it’s become a fulfilling time for her. You can listen to our full interview on The Retirement Café podcast.
The conspiracy of silence about retirement
“I found retiring incredibly hard. I really wasn’t expecting it to be as difficult as it was. I really got quite depressed, partly because I wasn’t well, but also because there’s a sort of conspiracy of silence about retirement. Everybody says how wonderful it is, but I don’t think people really honest about the first moment when you retire, when you lose all your colleagues, your job, your fulfilling role, your intellectual stimulation and it really took me about a year to adjust to being retired and then suddenly wake up and think, well, I’ve got 30 years hopefully ahead of me, what am I going to do with it?
It’s not easy. It’s a bit like having a baby. I found everybody tells you before you have a baby, “Oh it’s wonderful.” And then the minute you have the baby and you talk to another new mother, they say, “Oh God, isn’t it awful? Sleepless nights, you’ll never sleep again.” And I found it was slightly like that when I talked to my friends who had retired. They said, “Oh yes, the first year I was awful. But then it’s wonderful.” And so it has proved.
When I started feeling fitter, my health is not 100% even now. As with a lot of people in their sixties onwards, they have conditions that they need to cope with. That was obviously something that you just got to get on with.
It’s been just a wonderful time once I’ve made the adjustment. Time of freedom, having more control over your life, being able to look around and see where you want to go and what new things you might want to do. Making new friends. I really, in my book I’ve got this wonderful quote from David Bowie who says, “Ageing is that extraordinary process whereby you become the person you always should have been.“ And I just think that’s wonderful. And I think it’s very true because I’ve started a whole new third stage of life, which is completely different from previously.
Once I started feeling better to try and get fitter, I discovered basically a Latin dance class at my local gym and I thought I’d go along there. Not a single man, I may say, but loads of middle aged and older women. And once I started dancing, I just loved it. I was hopeless Justin. I can’t tell you how hopeless I was. One foot, I didn’t know my left from my right, but I just loved the whole thing of it, the music, the socialising. I did that for a bit and then he introduced Argentine tango and I just thought that was wonderful. I took myself off to Argentine tango classes for four years and then tried some other things and then ended up trying ballet, which I haven’t done. I haven’t done any dance except a year in nursery school. And I loved that and joined a dance company. Amazingly they took me in and it’s called Sage and it’s a performance dance company. And so we now perform and I’m still hopeless, but I love it. I absolutely love it.
The benefit of dance
Dancing has transformed my life. I think I can really say that. That in every aspect of my life, certainly in fitness, I lost weight, I changed shape, I got more flexible, my balance improved. But also mentally, it’s quite challenging doing dance, especially if you’re learning new steps. It’s great for the brain I found and the memory. In fact, there’s research that shows if you do dancing regularly, about three times a week, and it’s a form of dance where you’re learning new steps, not just repeating the same thing, you reduce your risk of dementia by a staggering 76%.
What’s not to like?
Hopefully it will keep me fitter mentally and physically, but also help my cognition in later life. And then of course there’s the social aspect. I’ve made so many new friends. It’s been wonderful and I totally, totally believe that anybody and everybody can dance. That you don’t have to be, you don’t have to win strictly, but you can do it whether you’ve got Parkinson’s or disability, everybody. And there are so many opportunities now locally, dance classes springing up all over the place. I don’t know if you know about Silver Swans, which is ballet classes for older people, which is all over the country now. My mantra is, you don’t stop dancing because you get old, you get old because you stop dancing. And I stick to that.
Volunteering with Open Age
Volunteering generally and I’m a trustee on one or two other organisations, but Open Age I found because I was looking for activities and I joined their dance class and then I discovered they did other activities. I became a really a groupie, as you might say. I’d started doing Tai Chi and singing and art and Spanish and I just thought this was the most remarkable charity. It’s all about positive ageing. Has over 5,000 members in London and it runs over 350 hours of activities. Everything from philosophy to languages to Zumba for a very, very wide demographic.
We’re just near Grenfell Tower, we had some members in Grenfell Tower sadly. And it was so inspiring seeing the members there who really had not a lot going for them and how their lives were transformed through taking up new social, leisure, learning activities or physical activities. It was just brilliant and so I became a trustee and now I’m delighted. I feel it’s a real privilege that I’m now vice chair and really think it should be a model for ageing well in the future all over the place, not just in London. That’s my mission anyway.
It just really works. It’s so good for connecting people and giving them a whole new lease of life and a new purpose, as you say.
The ageing better movement
I wrote a book called How to Age Joyfully. The idea came from really from what we’ve just been discussing from the fact that I felt so much better when I started dancing and I saw what Open Age were doing and I started thinking, well, this, I really feel great about ageing now.
It’s such a positive time of life. But I also saw such a negative picture portrayed about ageing, so many negative stereotypes and this so called narrative of decline that you read about so often. And I wanted to do something about that. I started this Twitter account called Age Joyfully @AgeingBetter with a Blue Chicken, do follow me. And I thought, well, I’ll aim for a 100 followers and I’ll just be positive about ageing and give information, advice, et cetera. And I’ve just got now just over 7,000 followers. And I was just staggered by this.
And I thought, well, there’s a real gap here. But then I was told that an awful lot of older people don’t like Twitter, don’t want to be on it. It was suggested that perhaps I might like to write a book. And I researched it a bit and thought, well there was another gap in the market for an uplifting, practical, accessible book on how to age well.
And also at the same time, if I did that because I’m donating 50% of my royalties to Open Age, I could help them at the same time. It really seemed a win win. I never thought I’d get a publisher, but fortunately I was just thrilled, I was offered a deal by the first publisher I went to. And so I produced this book and it was really based on the research I’ve done on what I’ve learned through Twitter and my personal experience on what the Centre for Ageing Better has shown and the blue zones where people live the longest and it’s, it came down really in my mind to eight steps and I can, if you want very briefly just to run through.
The eight steps to ageing better
Well, the first four I think are the most important probably and the ones that the Centre of Ageing Better and the blue zones really hone in on and I think the most important of all is probably the first step, which is move.
- Move – And that’s physical activity. The miracle cure as the NHS calls it. And I think that that is just vital. We don’t move enough. We don’t. We sit too much. We need to just have a bit more activity in our lives.
- The second is eating right, a healthy diet and being very moderate in your consumption because we have a real problem with obesity.
- The third is, we’ve already touched on is having a purpose in your life. The Japanese call it ikigai or reason for being.
- The fourth is connection, which is absolutely vital. Loneliness is as bad for you as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Connecting and having good relationships, social relationships is vital.
- And then the fifth is lifelong learning. What I call grow, keeping your mind active, because use it or lose it. It’s important for your mind as well as your body.
- The sixth is gratitude, practising gratitude, which has apparently been shown to be incredibly good for you and you can learn how to do it.
- The seventh is giving. Giving both to others and yourself of your time, your money, your possessions and even your skills, your experience.
- The final one, which I think is also vital, is having a positive attitude to life, being positive about ageing and what’s to come. And again, research has shown that those people who have this positive attitude basically live an extra seven and a half years. There’s a real benefit.
And in the book I have a 150 practical tips on how to achieve each of these eight steps, which I think are so important.
I have 170 quotes like the David Bowie one.
In the book I do say, “And if you do all the other seven steps,” even though this is one tip on the how you will get to be more positive. I have about 20 others. But you’re so right that I think if you do all those things that all the steps actually interconnect. If you connect with other people you’ll probably learn something. It’s a whole holistic type package actually. But yes, obviously there are people who have mental health issues and I’ve been there done that and yes, you need help. Not everybody is lucky enough to be able to be positive all the time. But I think that there is an awful lot that in those other steps, which as you say, can help you.
I think the steps apply whether you’re 20 or 90 and indeed, my daughter read it and said, “Oh this is really inspiring.” And all her friends are now buying it and reading it because they do, every single one of them applies equally at whatever age. And if you start younger, that’s even better because really they’re saying now that certainly with physical fitness you should start in mid life if you want to have a healthy later life.”