My name is Irene and I am 93 years young. I live on my own. I drive myself everywhere. People always say to me you have great genes and you’re so lucky. But I don’t have great genes and I’m not lucky. My mother was 72 when she died of Angina. I’m one of 9 kids and one of my sisters died of a heart attack, 2 brothers died of Angina, and one brother had stomach cancer — all these siblings were in their 60s when they died. So it’s not genes. I work at it. I’ve been watching myself very closely for the last 40-50 years and it’s a combination of things: how you think, the friends and social support you have, how happy you are with your family, how you feel about yourself, the food you eat, and how you move.
My father was killed in a car accident when I was 12 years old. I worked from the time I was 13, quit school when 16 and started night school so I could work the during the day. I got married right before I turned 17. I had my first child [Sara’s dad!] just before I turned 19. I had two more kids and am a mom of 3, a grandmother to 6, a grandmother-in-law to 3, and a great-grandmother to 7.
I worked for the first year after getting married and then stopped to raise my kids. When I was 38 and I became a make-up artist and that led me to get interested in art. I had never drawn or painted a thing but the person teaching me makeup application said I should try to draw. I took art lessons for a year but stopped when I had to have surgery. It felt like whenever I started to do something life got in the way to stop me.
What was the biggest shift in your life after turning 40 (or 50)?
When I was 45 years old, my husband, who was a butcher, and I moved out of Toronto to open a business in London. It was sad timing because it was the year our first grandchild [Sara] was born. Being away from family and helping run the business wasn’t easy. When I was 55, I went back to take painting lessons again and went 2 days a week for 2 years. But then life intervened again and I had to let it go to focus on other responsibilities.
We moved back to Toronto when I was 59 and that’s when finally I was able to focus on my interest in art. I went to art school for 2 days a week and that’s really where I learned the basics. While I was there a friend of mine was teaching painting on silk and I took some lessons with her. I started painting on silk, making paintings and scarves. I treated that as my full-time job, making my lunch every morning and taking it down to our basement where I had a studio set up. I made and sold hundreds of scarves. From there I took more painting and drawing lessons from a teacher who taught at the Ontario College of Art. I joined her group of artists. We would go to her house every week to paint and it was the best time of my life.
The year that I was 60, I started traveling with that group on annual art trips, to places like Italy, Switzerland, California, and Vancouver. and those trips were heaven. It was such an education. We went to all the galleries, and took our lunches with all our supplies and stools and sat on the streets sketching. I never would have seen Europe if it wasn’t for those trips with that group and it was fabulous.
When do you feel you are most powerful?
I always felt most powerful when I was painting. I used to paint every day. I’d even wake up in the middle of the night with an idea for how to improve something I was working on and start painting. I can’t do that anymore but I loved it.
When each of my great-grandchildren turned 4, I started having them over for their birthdays to have one-on-one painting and playing time with me and it’s a tradition that has been going on with each child for the last 10 years – the oldest is now 14 and the youngest is 6. The teenagers now want to go for lunch instead but the younger ones still come here to paint. And spending time with each of them makes me feel so wonderful. Having this one on one time with each child has helped me get to know them differently, their personalities, and what they like. I encourage them and tell them how much I love them and they seem so happy here and it makes me so happy. It gives me so much joy.
What are the top 3 most important things to you right now?
- My family. My great-grandchildren, my grandchildren, my children, and especially spending time with my grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
- Keeping healthy and independent
How do you ensure your actions are aligned with what’s important?
I’ve realized my energy is more limited so I’m learning to let some of the less important things go. Once I’ve focused on what’s important, I’ll do other things but if not I’m not worried about it anymore.
What seeds are you planting for the future?
Spending time with my family, making people feel good, and telling people how I feel about them and the positive things I see in them.
What advice would you give someone who is interested in redesigning midlife?
There are a few things,
- We can’t control what happens in life. All we can do is control how we react to it. Try to find the positives in every situation and be grateful for everything good in your life. Sometimes you’ll want to scream and pull your hair out and it’s okay to let yourself feel that way but quickly come back to what you’re grateful for.
- This time of life, midlife, is very, very important when it comes to creating a healthy foundation for aging well. I read once that the human body is like a building and it’s built on the materials it consumes. If you put a building up with good materials it will last hundreds of years like in Europe. Feed your body properly. Focus on your health now. It’s not too late. But it’s important to do your homework and figure out what is healthy for you because everybody is different. Do your research and work with people you trust.
- Move your body every day. I’ve always exercised and walked.
- Never stop learning. Throughout my life, I’ve continued to take courses and keep teaching myself about the things that interest me. Even now I’m learning new things about nutrition because there are always changes to stay on top of.
- One of the hardest things about living to a ripe old age is losing so many friends. Nurture your friendships, surround yourself with people who make you feel good, and join organizations that provide some kind of community that will be there for you if you need them.