A new start after 60: ‘Alone for the first time in my life, I learned how to be happy’

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

Marian Elliott was 22 when she left the family home to be with her husband-to-be. So when he left her nearly 40 years later – shortly after her 60th birthday – she found herself living entirely alone for the first time.

Elliott had thought she could picture the next stage in her life. She and her ex had worked hard to pay off their mortgage. “We were about to enjoy our retirement together,” she says with a heavy sigh. Now there was nothing but uncertainty. “I felt such pain, I didn’t know what to do with it,” she says.

We were about to enjoy our retirement together. I felt such pain, I didn’t know what to do with it

For Elliott, “a marriage broken up by the other person is like a bereavement”, and the grief she felt revived another sorrow that she had been unable fully to face. When she was 20, her father died of stomach cancer. “I have suffered from depression ever since,” she says. “It doesn’t take much, and whoosh! – it all comes back.”

Her father was unaware that his illness was terminal, though Elliott knew, and she never had a chance to say goodbye, nor to share a “meaningful conversation” with him before he died. Within a year, her then boyfriend also died of stomach cancer. “There’s only so much you can talk about in terms of grief at that age, I think. People don’t know what to do with you,” she says. It was in this context that she became friends with the man who would become her husband.

It was only after her marriage ended that Elliott embarked on counselling, at the suggestion of her doctor, and began to understand her bouts of depression. “You kind of bury these things. It does help, understanding where all this comes from.”

When she first set up her marital home, her overwhelming sensation was of “freedom”. She hand-sewed kaftans for herself and her partner, cooked what she wanted to eat, and together they hung wallpaper and built bookshelves.

But when she bought her own place for the first time at 64, and moved from Surrey to the Kent coast, she had to face a totally new kind of freedom, one that was offset by a solitary responsibility and sometimes acute loneliness.

In her despair, she reached for some positives. “I thought: ‘I’ve always wanted to be by the sea,’” she says, and now she was. And she was finally able to get the dog she had long wanted. One of her greatest joys is walking Ruby, her rescue lurcher/collie cross, along the beach. “We like that,” she says.

I come home and I look at my front door and think: ‘No one can take that away from me, ever’

“It’s been nine years since all this started falling apart. And I come home and I look at my front door and think: ‘That is my front door. No one can take that away from me, ever.’ On the other hand, once I’m through the door, I am on my own and that is still hard.”

She already knew of u3a – AKA the University of the Third Age, whose motto is “learn, laugh, live” – but she had always been too busy to sign up. Now, she looked up her local branch. “I knew I needed people. They have somebody on the door. If you look a bit lost, they say: ‘Have you been here before? Oh, I’ll sit you down with somebody’ … By the time you walk out of that first session, it’s like you’ve been there for ever.

Related: A new start after 60: ‘I took up hedgelaying at 65 and discovered a hidden connection with my father’

“Your confidence builds up. You get to walk through another door. A bit worried, but you do it.” Now, Elliott attends the Spanish, family history, creative writing and gardening groups (most of her new flower bed has been stocked with the help of her “generous and kind-hearted” friends); she also sits on the committee, organises AGMs and hosts coffee mornings.

Life is not how she envisaged it nine years ago, but her new friends “are showing me that there is still lots for me to enjoy and do. They have enabled me, through their friendliness, to make a new life all by myself. And that’s quite an empowering feeling.”

u3a is a national learning organisation in which people come together to develop their interests, make new friends and have fun. This is its 40th anniversary year.

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