Staying young at heart

July 2023
Phyllis Shragge

Tennis.  Swimming.  Tap dancing.  Line dancing.  Aerobics classes.  Walking and walking and walking.  My energizer-bunny mother was a proponent of exercise long before the benefits seemed to become a universal truth.   

My mother lived a relatively healthy life until she died 15 years ago just a few months before her 100th birthday. She was adamant that physical activity was a major factor to her well-being and she tried to convince everyone close to her to get on her exercise bandwagon.  I was reluctant, preferring to be somewhat of a sloth in my younger years.

My mother was the force behind my parents’ daily walks.  They wouldn’t miss a day trekking through the streets of Winnipeg, even during the blusteriest of blustery winters.  When my parents asked me to join them on their daily excursions, I declined, vigorously.  I’m now a walker, trying to make up for lost time before my knee and hip joints rust.

A couple of bouts of breast cancer (in her 50s and later in her 70s) slowed my mother down, but just briefly.  She lived well and she had a positive outlook as she aged.  Did exercise contribute to her well-being?  Absolutely.

Although exercise kept her vibrant both physically and mentally, it was just part of the reason she stayed young at heart.  I credit another factor, an offshoot of her tennis playing that had nothing to do with endurance, flexibility, or agility.  It was a surprising friendship with young women.

As she advanced into her mid-80s, my mother was unique among her contemporaries, physically active when most of her friends were sedentary.  

Refusing to give up tennis, she decided to play with women who were much younger than her, some even younger than her children.

She became friends with these women beyond the tennis court.  They invited her for lunch and coffee, including her in their get-togethers despite the difference in their ages.

As my mother became elderly, she needed a walker and could no longer play tennis.  She expected her tennis friends to forget her, but they didn’t.  They continued to welcome her into their social circle.

When she was in her 90s, she moved from her apartment into long-term care.  She was thrilled when her younger friends still reached out to her.  

Apparently, these women saw past my mother’s age. They recognized her for who she was: a woman with intellectual curiosity; a woman who cared about others; a woman who also happened to be good company.  

Being with these friends seemed to transform my mother into her younger self: the tennis-playing, walking-through-blizzards, the no-one-can-hold- her-back self.  

When she was with these younger women, she didn’t see herself as a frail old lady.  Her physical state was just a glitch; it didn’t define her.  

My mother was complicated.  She challenged herself by staying on top of current events, but she also valued looking good.  Even as she became elderly, she wouldn’t dream of going out without lipstick.  And throughout her life, she loved fashion, especially vibrant colours.  In many respects, she brightened up the room she was in.

With her 100th birthday just months ahead, she wanted a party to celebrate.  She went into planning mode, compiling the guest list, picking the venue, and determining the format. Her children had little to say about the arrangements.  That’s the way it had always been, and that’s the way she wanted it.  Unfortunately, she didn’t make it to her milestone birthday.

Her vibrancy and optimism endured through the years. Her younger friends deserve part of the credit. So now with my old age looming ahead, I’m looking for young women who might consider being my friends.  

The only prerequisite: they must be a good 20 to 30 years younger than me.  I’ll be checking my email for applications.

Phyllis Shragge is a local writer, mother of five, and grandmother of five.