The time of her life
Joan McCarthy Photo: Eddie Jim
Joan McCarthy is happier than she's ever been. She's having some fabulous sex. She's working on her PhD Last year, she completed her first triathlon.
She is a melange of vivacity and serenity and wit and confidence and humility. She radiates liberation. And she says she's quite typical of women her age. Joan McCarthy is 72.
McCarthy is here in The Zone to discuss Sixty Strong and Sexy: Women Share Their Secrets, co-authored with Maureen Smith. They flew themselves from Perth to Melbourne to feature at the recent Emerging Writers' Festival.
The book, which she started at 68, is a response to the widespread perception that getting older inevitably, insidiously undermines well-being.
''If you look at all the pieces of information that are out there about people in their sixties, it was saying one thing, but what we were finding was something really, really different. We felt vibrant, we felt alive, we felt as though we were having more fun than we have ever had in our whole lives.
''We said, 'there is a bit of a discrepancy here. I wonder if other women feel like we do'. The women we spoke to said that certainly they did. So we thought that we had better find out a bit more and we formulated a questionnaire.
''The information that we got there really confirmed what we felt - this was a time when our freedom was growing, our confidence was growing, and life was simply getting better.''
Of course, age does work as a cruel and inexorable partner to the mongrel fate and genetic legacy that render many lives difficult, if not miserable or worse. But, for those in passable health, whether through benevolent fortune or smart lifestyle decisions or both, McCarthy's point is life just gets better. She rejects the loaded notion of ageing, preferring to talk of a process of maturation.
''Ageing says you get to a certain age and then, sorry, yes but it is all downhill from here. Adult maturation says this is another stage of your life …
''[Developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst Erik] Erikson would say that there is the age of integrity and then a final stage of 'generativity'. These are the stages of maturation. And when you reach the stage of integrity it means you're gathering all the wisdom of your life and integrating it and that's reflected in the studies that are done on the brain now. Then when you reach the age of generativity you are giving back to the generations coming behind you. Maureen and I are certainly experiencing this. I sit with my grandchildren and work with them on their assignments at uni. Maureen sits with her grandchildren and teaches them all sorts of life skills and so on, and we see this happening everywhere.''
It is the certainty of death that renders existence meaningful, gives each moment value. Eternal life is my definition of absurdity, and of hell. Were life - as opposed to the soul - endless, nothing would have any relative merit or interest.
To experience every parallel existence, to go through everything possible is the same as experiencing nothing; where infinity equates with zero. McCarthy and Smith found a range of responses to the knowledge of death.
''I have spoken with women who have designed their coffin and have prepared the coffin and have researched how they want their funeral to be. They have made a living will. There are many people who are doing that. There are other people who say 'no, I do not want to think about it, I just want to get on and play'.
''There is room in this world for everything and that's one of the things about ageing - as we age we sit more comfortably in our skin so that we become more truly who we really are, and that means that we become diverse.
''When we accept death it seems to me that it frees us up to live more fully exactly how we want to live. We know there is an end point. And it's getting closer and closer. So, what am I going to do? Am I going to get up today and go 'oh dear, my hip is aching, I don't think I can get to Melbourne today?' No! Forget that.''
McCarthy's wisdom and insouciance have been distilled from some trying experiences. The hardest thing she has ever done is endure the profound depression that followed being sacked, inappropriately she says, from running a health centre for indigenous Australians. She says it pummelled her to the point of considering not going on with life.
But she survived. Then she thrived. She studied. She wrote academic papers about health and sexuality and maturation. And now, as part of the book, she's challenging the modern notion that demographic pressures are a threat to the economy's capacity to generate sufficient wealth to meet the needs of the so-called ageing population.
''The media were putting forward the position of how are we going to look after all these old people? How can we afford it, there's going to be so many of them? How can we do that?
''And that just did not sit with what was in our lives, because both of us are supporting our children. And in this theory they were supposed to be supporting us. And how were they going to afford it?
''We've not looked at the fact that when the (population) graph was skewed the other way, we forget that children need an enormous amount of support - far more than older people need.''
One thing McCarthy reckons older women need is recognition, particularly in a world where young, classically attractive, airbrushed women are paraded as the epitome of desirability.
''Women become invisible at a certain age. And women that we have talked to keep saying 'how come we have become invisible?' As Gail Dines said, the only alternative to looking unfuckable is to become invisible.''
McCarthy and Smith are reclaiming visibility. They've also got some good news for those who might have feared that sexuality is the bastion of younger people.
There are, of course, multitudes who experience sexual problems, and others who simply gradually lose interest. The notion of normal encompasses an expansive set of behaviour. But, according to many of the women McCarthy and Smith questioned, sex improves with age.
''There are many billboards that tell you how with a pill you can have longer-lasting sex. Good sex is not about longer-lasting sex, in my opinion. Good sex is about a connection with the person with whom you are relating. It takes maturity.
''As we get older, men often get very, very anxious about performance. And when they are able to realise that it is less about performance and more about communicating, and relax, they discover, according to what women tell us, that it just gets better and better.
''There is the quote that we have got in our book from Marilyn Monroe, who is the great icon of all of sexiness, and she said that she's never had an orgasm. There is this dichotomy between being sexy and enjoying our sexuality.''
Perhaps the most important thing about the book is it doesn't really contain any big secrets, just thoughtfulness, good sense and openness. Time's passage brings freedom to many, well ahead of the ultimate liberty. The book is a celebration and exploration of life; it's that simple and that profound.
''Women consistently say 'oh, at last I can do what I want to do. I don't have to get up to the babies all night. I don't have to think about all sorts of things outside my area of my life. I can do what I want to do'. They have more courage. Their courage has increased and that is to do with the confidence.
''I might now have more lines than Telstra on my face but I don't bloody care any more. What's the point?''