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We were the lucky generation.
Post-war, things hadn’t totally gone
back to normal, but we had it so
much better than our parents.
Maggy Pigott CBE is the author of How to Age Joyfully: Eight Steps to a Happier, Fuller Life (with a Foreword by Dame Judi Dench). As Maggy says, “Getting older should be something to enjoy and celebrate.” She describes the book as an “accessible, light-hearted, easy read, yet informative and fact based.” Maggy details ways in which we can keep healthy and happy as we get older. As we’re living longer, Maggy’s mantra is “let’s live better”. Gyles Brandreth described the book as, “Full of wit, wisdom and hope!”
Maggy came late to becoming an author; she qualified as a barrister and worked as a civil servant for many years, before retiring in 2011. One of her passions is dance – Maggy is a member of 2 dance companies that welcome older dancers. She’s also Vice-Chair of Open Age, a Vice-Patron of Working Families, ambassador for Para Dance UK, and an independent member of the Public Service Honours Committee.
Though a Londoner, Maggy is connected to Leeds through the work of Time to Shine and Age Proud Leeds. Ruth Steinberg met Maggy to find out more about her life and how she came to be where she is now.
Probably the biggest
challenge relating to
age is that we're
all living longer,
life is upon us
Hello Maggy. Lovely to meet you.
Great to be here. My family has a connection with Leeds as my great grandfather came to this country to be Rabbi of Leeds and my mother was born there.
We both grew up in the 50s. Our parents had gone through a world war, and we were the new generation. We were lucky, but it was also quite grim too. What was good about growing up in those days and what were the challenges or difficulties?
Yes, we were the lucky generation. Post-war, things hadn’t totally gone back to normal, but we had it so much better than our parents. We had a bit more money, but not too much. We could get a grant to go to university. Then you could find a job and usually afford a home too. But on a personal level, I don’t look back on my childhood with any great degree of happiness. In fact, I don't think my life truly started until I went to university. My mother was a successful civil servant, a complete workaholic, loved her job, and worked full time all her life. She was the first civil servant to be able to continue working when they lifted the marriage bar in the late 1940s. She received a CBE when she retired.
My father was a doctor, a consultant physician. But when I was five, he fell terminally ill and, for three years, he was not well - despite continuing to work much of the time. He died at the age of 45. I was eight, my sister was 11. That was obviously so tough for my mother, although my grandmother lived with us which helped.
Then, when I was 13, my sister fell very seriously ill; she almost died. She had a long and slow recovery. We shared a room until she left home to get married, which was difficult for both of us. I always hankered after having a room of my own! Four years later, my grandmother developed cancer and died at home. And what devastated me was that my best school friend - my soul mate for over 10 years - fell and died whilst she was walking alone in the Lake District. We were due to start at the same university the following month. I still miss her and wonder how her life would have turned out.
So, by the time I had just turned 18, four people who were extremely close to me had either died or narrowly escaped death. But, in those days, you just got on with it because there was no counselling or other support.
I remember after my father had died, I had a few days off school and then went back. Nobody talked about it, they were all a bit embarrassed. As I say, I don't look back on my childhood with any great joy, but it did show me something which I don't suppose many people experience at that young age. And that is the fragility of life. We really can be here one day and gone tomorrow, and I learned that it is vital to value and appreciate being alive and to grab each day for what it gives you.
Which were the key factors, moments, decisions that made you the person you were to become?
One was that the women in our family worked. My grandmother (having also lost her husband at a young age) came down to London from Leeds, with four children, to help run the family business in Hackney. So, growing up it never occurred to me that I wouldn't have a job or a career. But, on the negative side, I had a mum who was not readily available. I received what I call “light-touch mothering” - or what she called “benign neglect”.
I was able to get to Oxford University, which gave me an amazing education, lifelong friends and a fantastic social life. We women were very much in the minority! At the end of my career, I was awarded a CBE. It was
a huge validation, especially for a part-timer, and it gave my confidence a great boost - perhaps a little late in the day. Marrying Tim, and having our two wonderful children, was life changing in the best possible way. We have had 43 happily married years so far.
Thanks to my experience growing up, I was absolutely determined that if I ever got married and had kids, I would never work full-time. That led me to give up independent practice at the Bar. I joined the Civil Service because I reckoned it would be a much more family-friendly employer. I went part-time after I had our first child and never returned to full-time working. I wanted to be with our children for the majority of each week. Volunteering, dancing, taking up writing and publishing a book at 68 - which has led to all sorts of exciting experiences. Those experiences have all had a positive impact these past few years.
You retired at 60. That's a big life transition and now you are 70. What's positive being in this part of your life? And what are the challenges?
I retired just before I was 60 because of ill health. My early 60s were not good because of illness and having to give up a job that I absolutely loved. It was a huge change. I lost my colleagues, purpose, status, identity, fulfilment, money. All of a sudden there was nothing in the diary, and I wasn't feeling well. But once I got better, I could pick up the pieces. My husband then had a stroke, so we went through a couple of rather hard years. But by my mid 60s he had substantially improved, and I too was feeling well.
Since then, I haven't looked back. I love my life being older and that's not because I wasn't happy at other times. But now I've got a husband, kids, a home and we aren't on the breadline. I have the health and time to do what I want to do. I can reinvent myself, find new interests and start afresh with new, as well as ‘old’, friends. I have changed from being a very left-brain lawyer and civil servant to discovering there's a whole different world out there, particularly the dance world, which transformed my life in every way, physically, mentally, and socially. I've also been able to do more voluntary work for causes that I feel passionate about. You don't have the pressure you have in midlife of career, raising kids, and elderly parents. Once you get past that, it's the best time. The research I did for the book shows that there is this U-curve of happiness; people do get happier from about their mid-60s and go on getting happier for quite a long time. Now I can quite understand why.
So, what are the challenges? I’m thinking about our assumptions and self-limiting beliefs about ourselves, but there's also ageism out there and unfair attitudes towards older people.
I surprise myself when I read about “Joe Bloggs, aged 69” and immediately think “he’s old.” And then I think “What am I saying, I’m older than that.” I don't think 70 is old these days, or at least not for most people. I love the quote that old age is always 15 years older than you are at the present time. There are challenges. There is a lot of ageism and negativity out there, from the workplace to greeting cards, which we need to tackle. Some people write you off when you’re old, and many feel their invisibility increases along with their years. Probably the biggest challenge relating to age is that we're all living longer, the 100-year life is upon us. There is a real need to make our health-span as close to our lifespan as possible. A lot of people, myself included, start collecting diseases, about one a decade in my case. I'm delighted the NHS is focusing on prevention and that helping people live better for longer has now come right up the agenda. I hope that continues.
Who are the women and men that are your role models and your inspiration?
My mother gave me a huge amount. I still have ringing in my ears several of her mantras like, “Deciding what you want in life is the hard part. Getting it is much easier”; “intelligence is nothing to boast about, it's a gift from God”; “do your best, you can't do better than that” and “pick your battles in life”. She made me believe I could achieve my dreams.
My husband is a huge role model because he embodies what I think a good person is. I have learned so much from him and his kindness and total support. Our children inspire me with their determination, courage, love of life, and care for others and us. At work I was total integrity and such a commitment to making the world a better place.
Then, more recently, the members of Open Age, (the charity where I'm a member and Vice Chair,) are a constant inspiration. They are aged up to 100 plus and most have such a zest for life. Many live in difficult circumstances, financially, physically, mentally, or socially - and yet they seem to have cracked ‘how to age joyfully’. They were my inspiration for writing the book.
If you were to write a letter or talk to your younger self, what would you say?
I would say don't worry as much as I did, because often what you worry about never happens. Even when it does, somehow you muddle through and you will actually cope with it. I would also say that it's your attitude to life that really determines what sort of life you will have. So, choose to be positive, choose to be optimistic, choose to make the most of it. Find joy in every day. There’s nothing wrong with being a bit selfish and making time for yourself. Certainly, I would tell my younger self to start dancing, and not leave starting until your late fifties. And I think the final thing would be to reassure her that life gets better as you get older. Young people often believe it's all going to end in tears and decrepitude. I would say, look, you've got all this to look forward to when you get older.
And what will you say to yourself on your 100th birthday?
I love parties so I’ll be having a big celebration, with lots of dancing of course. I will be making plans for the future. I feel about 35 now and I'm actually 70, so I'm hoping by the time I get to 100 I'll feel about 50. People do age differently, and I think that partly comes back to your attitude to life and how you approach it. I have a lot more living to do.
The last question is what brings you joy today?
My family and friends, they are probably the most important sources. I'm still dancing and now I can actually dance with people in a studio again, that is wonderful. I'm writing a book about dance and its benefits. I started during lockdown, having previously said that I’d never write another book. That is bringing me great joy. And finally, chocolate and red wine. I couldn’t have got through lockdown without copious amounts of both - now sadly showing up on my waistline!
For more information on Maggy's book go to www.howtoagejoyfully.com
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