Life & Culture

Interview: Jill Shaw Ruddock

Our best is yet to come


If the unstoppable human whirlwind that is Jill Shaw Ruddock gets her way – and one suspects that this is not an altogether rare occurrence – Britain's rabbis had better watch out. ''There are disused parts of synagogues, as well as churches, town halls, you name it, all over the country that need a purpose. Is there any greater purpose in life than giving people meaning, engendering the kind of community spirit that fulfils people's ambitions, inspires them, gives them hope and something to do? Gives them back their dignity and, in so doing, gives them a renewed purpose, too."

You half expect the dozen or so customers surrounding us in the chic Notting Hill coffee shop close to her home to break out into applause, such is Jill's passionate conviction and fervour. I don't imagine such a rapturous reception would delay her delivery for a second. My hand hurts taking notes and I should have brought extra batteries for my voice recorder - she's not one for slowing down. The only rest I get is when her husband, her two grown-up daughters and assorted friends ring or text, which happens regularly during our 90-minute conversation.

But having that innate, unstoppable drive is probably just as well. Because this petite, captivating 59-year-old American – whose tough upbringing is a world away from the privileged life she now shares with her financier husband, Sir Paul Ruddock, founder of Lansdowne Partners and Chairman of The Victoria and Albert Museum, has taken on a challenge that, she hopes, could transform British society. And, of course, our shuls.

We are here to talk about the re-release of her groundbreaking book, The Second Half of Your Life, as well as the extraordinary progress of the Second Half Centre in North Kensington which, for more than two years, has been developing a new model for the care and enjoyment of older people that she believes can be replicated across the country.

Born into a Jewish family in Baltimore, Maryland, Jill excelled at school and worked in media and business consultancy before heading up the British branch of American investment bank Alex Brown & Sons. Now she sits on various boards, including at the Donmar Warehouse, Mousetrap Theatre Projects and the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, but has devoted most time in the past four years to her Second Half Foundation.

Jews have always been fantastic at caring for their extended families

The Centre, which is dedicated to people aged over 50, was set up in the NHS St Charles Hospital in North Kensington, to create a template for positive ageing. Open throughout the week and boasting more than 1,500 members, 70 hours of activities a week, a cafe and almost 200 volunteers, it offers an enormous array of courses that cost a few pounds to attend.

The idea is to template some of what has been created there across Britain, with an army of talented volunteers teaching the over-50s new skills and hobbies, starting their own business, running exercise classes, history lectures based on the locality, cooking demonstrations – anything that will bring people together to ensure that the second half of their life is as inspiring as their first. And inspiring is the word. These aren't darkened drop-in centres where people sit alone at corner tables. ''I remember walking in to the Life Café at the Centre in one of the first weeks,'' says Jill, ''and there were seven or eight people in the café at different tables not talking to each other. Well, we're not having that. I corralled them together, sat down with them and had the most fantastic morning. I want people to meet, talk, feel energised, share experiences, to be part of something. Isolation is not an option.''

This is the kind of enthusiasm that has seen her garner the support of celebrities like Ruby Wax, Greta Scacchi and Maureen Lipman. Perhaps she hopes the Chief Rabbi will join that list.

''Jews have always been fantastic at looking after their extended families and giving something back to society. And that's what I'm trying to do. The difference is that I'm trying to rebrand the entire process of getting old. I want old to be the new old. Tell everyone you've bought an old Georgian sideboard and their eyes light up. Tell them you're old and they look away. In my eyes, old used to be a word that had such negative connotations – the new old is energetic, empowering, exciting, vibrant. Does Helen Mirren think she's old? She is but she doesn't look it and I bet that she doesn't feel it either. She's the epitome of the new old. Just like Twiggy, or Meg Whitman who runs Hewlett Packard, or the IMF's Christine Lagarde.''

But isn't the use of the word old damaging, I suggest. It's all well and good trying to reinvent it, but maybe it's too tainted, maybe you need an entirely new word. If age no longer defines us – and I don't believe it does either – old is a term that is, in its way, the very definition of age.

''You're right, age doesn't define us but what I'm trying to say is that today old is an entirely different word. A hundred years ago, the average age of death for a woman was 50 and so that was thought of as old. Now we are in the midst of a profound restructuring of society. These decades since the war have transformed women's lives to an enormous extent. The female population aged over 50 now are entirely different people – their best years can be ahead of them.''

Such a recalibration wouldn't have been possible without the baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964. Sexually liberated, empowered to pursue entirely different lifestyles because of the invention of the Pill, for instance, along with greater access to higher education and a wider selection of careers, they were the instigators of societal change.

''And now they are able to do it all over again in the second half of their lives,'' Jill says. ''They've been at the epicentre their entire lives and now, as they grow old, they are determined to change society all over again. That's why old is the new old – they are the new old. Vibrant, life-affirming, exuberant.''

Could old come to mean something else then? ''Yes, maybe. I don't want to age the way my mother did – isolated and feeling as if the best years were behind her. I don't want to be isolated. And that's part of the reason I set up the Second Half Centre, to make sure that people – no matter what their background or socio-economic status – are not alone, that they can find people with shared interests, so they have the chance to engage with a wider circle. Ageing is a great equaliser, in the same way that having a baby is. When we experience it, we want to learn from each other. The Centre gives people that opportunity, allows them to be connected.''

Much of Jill's positive ageing philosophy is laid out in her book, The Second Half of Your Life, which encourages women to deal with the menopause as a, if not liberating, then empowering event. She's currently writing a similar guide for men and the much-debated ''manopause'', about their feelings of bewilderment, depression and abandonment that come to the fore in middle age.

Her central thesis is that we need to embark on a five-a-day regime to combat ageing and loneliness: regular exercise, a good diet, mental stimulation, engaging with the community and our families, and finding a purpose in life. And all of these can be fulfilled at the Centre.

So is the menopause a cause for celebration? ''The key thing to remember,'' she says, leaning in to make her point with even greater determination, ''is that losing oestrogen during the menopause heralds an entirely new point in your life. There is a hormonal change within the body that propels us to redefine our lives. Before, those chemicals enabled us to be wonderful mothers, homemakers, the rock upon which families are made – and, of course, independent career women in our own right. But before the menopause we tend to put others first – afterwards, it's our turn. It provides us with the opportunity to be who we always wanted to be. And I wouldn't be surprised if a similar situation is happening with middle-aged men too.

''Hormones determine the way that we think and act. And when women undergo these kinds of physiological changes, it creates a framework in which they're unafraid of taking on new challenges. We get a post-menopausal zest. Whilst society might make us feel marginalised when we get older, our brains are telling us something completely different. That conflict can sometimes create feelings of isolation and marginalisation, and that's precisely what I'm trying to change, especially through the five-a-day plan.''

All proceeds of the book will go to her registered charity, the Second Half Foundation, to set up more community hubs around the country. It's a bold ambition but, in a country where there are almost 23 million people aged over 50 - a third of the total population - and where more people are aged over 60 than under 18, it's an ambition that demands to be fulfilled.

The whirlwind might have started in Notting Hill but if Jill Shaw Ruddock is to be believed, it's heading for a shul near you…

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