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Breaking through the age barrier

Elderly people exercising
Elderly people exercising and keeping fit

By Mary Jane Baxter

How old is too old? Is age a barrier to success? The row over Strictly Come Dancing's Arlene Phillips who at 66 is being replaced by a younger presenter, has added to the general suspicion that women of a certain age are not encouraged to strut their stuff.

The BBC has vigorously denied that its decision has anything to do with Arlene's date of birth, but there are those who believe that women do have a sell-by-date.

Recent figures from Age Concern and Help the Aged reveal that 65% of older people believe age discrimination still exists in the workplace, and over the past year unemployment in the 50-plus age bracket has risen by nearly 50%.

So it's heartening to hear of older women who are refusing to let their age dictate their lives.

Mary Jane Baxter profiles three London women who won't be wasting their time worrying about the number of candles on their cake.

The Model

Bridget Sojourner
Bridget has appeared in the Guardian

Seventy-one year old Bridget Sojourner won't play the numbers game. A few months ago, she decided to give modelling a shot, spurred on by the positive comments she received about her striking street style.

She got some professional photos taken, put a portfolio together, and set about pounding the pavements, knocking on the doors of the agencies. Then Bridget had the idea of phoning fashion designer Fanny Karst, whose label "Old Ladies' Rebellion" produces high quality cutting-edge clothes for mature women with attitude.

Fanny loved Bridget's look, and contacted The Guardian. Within just a few weeks, Bridget was appearing in the glossy pages of the paper's Weekend magazine.

"I've always been a firm feminist," says Bridget "and throughout my life I've been a pioneer in all sorts of ways, be it in education, community work, or development. I felt the last bastion for me would be combating ageism.

There's a dearth of older models - so I thought, well, why not get out there and give it a go. As a younger woman I didn't really attract much attention with my looks, but I think as I've got older, people have noticed me more…and that's great, because older women need to be visible."

The Milliner

Anna Daventry
Anna works with leading milliner Stephen Jones

Anna Daventry is another Londoner who's hit her stride later in life. After a career on the stage and in publishing, Anna found herself facing the new millennium without a job. She'd always loved hats, so decided to enroll on an HNC millinery course at the Kensington and Chelsea College.

The fact that Anna was in her late fifties didn't deter her in the slightest, and after completing the two-year qualification, she set about making her own range which was snapped up by Bond Street store Fenwick.

She then secured a sought-after job with leading milliner Stephen Jones working on his technically demanding model hats and has never looked back.

"Age has never been an issue with Stephen," says Anna, "and as long as my eye-sight lasts - I don't see why I shouldn't do the job! I can't really imagine retiring, and besides, I think my maturity brings many benefits to the workplace."

I think my maturity brings many benefits to the workplace
Anna Daventry

Anna finds that many of her customers appreciate being able to commission a hat from someone of their own generation and there's a belief that she'll be more sympathetic to their needs.

The Doctor

With an ageing population, and retirement looking like a thing of the past, it makes sense to do something you really love.

That's exactly what 46-year-old Sarah Gledhill decided when she embarked on a career-change that most people would baulk at even in their twenties.

With three kids and many successful years as a consultant clinical psychologist behind her, Sarah could have continued comfortably with her life, perhaps even looking forward to shifting down a gear.

But Sarah is now about to start her second year at London St George's where she's studying medicine along with a group of other graduates.

Sarah Gledhill
Sarah is now studying to be a doctor

For Sarah, being accepted onto the course at St George's was a dream come true. Whilst she enjoyed her previous work, she always felt that she'd missed her real vocation and assumed she was too old to do anything about it. But the graduate option opened a new door. If she succeeds, she'll qualify before she reaches her own half-century.

"There have been times when I've thought that I must be mad! It's much harder than I ever anticipated. But studying medicine is absolutely fascinating and once I knew there was an opportunity out there, I just had to do it. I couldn't have lived with the regret"

Many of Sarah's friends, also in their forties, have switched careers. One is becoming a teacher, the other is doing a degree in art and design.

"Women now think it's possible to live their dreams," says Sarah. "Of course it's not an easy option. The financial pressures are enormous, and combining childcare with studying is a real challenge. It's a shame I won't have as much time to carve out a career in medicine as I would have done if I'd qualified earlier, but my message is to go for it!"

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