Divorce rates rose for the first time this decade — a statistical blip caused by a surge in break-ups amongst the over 50s.
More than 13,000 women and over 19,000 men aged 55 plus untied the knot in 2016 (the most recent figures from the Office for National Statistics).
Splitting up after years with the same person can feel devastating, yet, as these inspirational stories show, it can also be a time of positive change and new beginnings.
Indeed, the ‘why not’ generation are making full use of their freedom. Some 21% of adults have travelled solo since turning 50, according to a 2018 survey of 3,000 participants, carried out by Camping in the Forest, and a whooping 61% say they feel younger than their true age.
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Deborah Ives, 58, from Clapham, London, travelled solo for the first time after her marriage of 17 years broke-up. Hooked by the travel bug, she gave up her software marketing job to mentor young people in the favelas of Rio. Inspired by her experiences, she is launching a social media campaign to encourage other older ladies to overcome their fears of holidaying alone.
A stickler for three meals a day, and an ordered household, it took a leap of faith for Deborah to accept the mantra of ‘when in Rome’ — or, in her case, Rio. Tea gave way to coconut water and cachaca (white rum made with cane sugar), square meals to finger foods (deep fried or wrapped in pastry) picked up from the local street vendors, and as for her love of a tight schedule? That had to change too.
“We were warned that time-keeping had a whole different meaning in Brazil. I would show up at 9am at our communal working space and have to wake the security guard. There’d be no-one else there. It was not uncommon for clients to turn up hours late for a meeting. That took a lot of getting used to and I had to find ways to be more flexible and not get stressed about it.”
It was part of the steep learning curve that came with Deborah’s decision to jack in her high-paying job as a marketing manager in order to volunteer as a mentor to young business folk in Rio’s impoverished favelas (shanty towns). A decision that by her own admission, she would never had made - had her marriage stayed intact.
“I loved being married. I thought I had a great marriage and my ex was the centre of my life,” Deborah reflects. “We both worked hard and the upside was that we took some great trips.” Highlights included diving in Tonga with humpback whales and their calves.
But after 17 years of marriage the split was fast and brutal.
“He met someone at work and despite only knowing her for three months, decided she was the one and that was that. After that I rarely saw him.”
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Deborah was devastated. “My whole life fell apart. I was so very, very sad, and felt humiliated that I hadn’t seen it coming.”
Prior to breaking-up, Deborah had booked the couple’s next vacation - a diving trip to Sipadan Island, off the coast of Borneo. It was while contemplating what to do about this holiday that Deborah’s transition began.
“I suddenly decided: sod everything! I was absolutely going on the trip that I’d already planned, and I’d go by myself. I remember sitting in Heathrow T3 ready to board my flight and feeling absolutely petrified and wondering why the hell I had thought it was such a good idea. I did that whole nervous talking-to-everyone thing, called a couple of friends and my sister and then I was off.”
After hours of travel, Deborah arrived in stunning jungle scenery.
“I had the most incredible cabin with views out over the bush — toucans in the trees, pigmy elephants walking along the river bank, just amazing, but when I checked in I discovered I was the only guest — it was like The Shining! I went into my cabin and wept for hours, thinking I was going to be bitten by something hideous in my sleep and no one would ever know.”
However, the staff soon made up for it. Deborah spent hours chatting to the owner and enjoyed personalised safari drives and walks.
“In the end I had the most wonderful time — so personal it will stick in my mind forever.”
Next stop was the diving location. “It was so beautiful and special. I had a moment of thinking how I should have been there with my husband, which was really difficult. Then I started diving, and it hit me that I could concentrate fully on my own dive. In the past I’d worry that my ex was safe and having a good time and forget about myself. It was all so unbelievably wonderful that all my doubts disappeared.”
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Thereafter, Deborah was bitten by the solo travel bug.
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“My first trip had been scary and exciting in equal measure, but ultimately so liberating that I have been hooked on solo travel ever since. I take more time to really experience everything I want, I speak to more people, go at a more relaxed pace, and have made incredible friends along the way.”
In 2016 Deborah joined a volunteering programme in Rio run by Social Starters, which enabled her to help clients build websites and find ways to market and expand their social enterprises.
Highlights included helping a young woman set up gardens in impoverished kindergartens in the favelas.
“These were literally a patch of earth in a concrete courtyard. All she had was a bag of soil, a tomato that she’d cut open for seeds, and a plastic watering can. We would spend Saturdays collecting empty plastic water bottles, cut the bottoms off, and paint these to make pots for the kids to plant their own seeds from home. My client was only 18 but has since gone on to grow her social enterprise and crowd fund it, which makes me feel proud.”
As part of the wider programme, Deborah also worked with a social enterprise company operating ethical tours around favelas, a fashion brand that repurposed old clothes, and a mobile library run by a man from the back of his bike.
She returned to England feeling proud of herself for getting stuck into it and being considerably older than anyone else on the programme.
While the Brazil trip was organised, Deborah continues to make most trips alone and plans these independently. “Travel is so important to me and holidays are so precious that I don’t want to compromise. Now that I’m alone I can be totally selfish in travelling the way I want to and to the places I want to see.”
Keen to encourage other older ladies to follow her example and take the plunge, she has launched a social media campaign to promote solo travel. You can follow her blog: “Solo in Style” (deborahives.com), or join a community of like-minded people to share adventures, experiences and tips at her Facebook page facebook.com/soloinstyle
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After 30 years of marriage, North London-based mother and grandmother Anna Zannides, 56, traded her conventional, cluttered life for a quieter, simpler one. Formerly an education advisor, Anna became a Buddhist, and retrained as a mindfulness teacher. She now works with people living with cancer.
Daughter of a gambling addict, with parents who divorced at a time when it was not the done thing, Anna never had it easy.
When her own marriage of three decades also came to an end, Anna knew it was time to take stock.
“Having grown up in a troubled family, I looked in the mirror and apologised to the little girl I had let down and swore I'd put it right this time.”
Anna was still reeling from a recent redundancy when she discovered of her husband’s affair. The truth emerged a few days before she was due to be away overnight.
“We were going to a family christening. My husband went to wash the car while I got ready and then I got a text from him. It said: ‘I’m free on Wednesday, all night, what do you think?’ I had to read it a couple of times for it to sink in, but I knew it wasn’t for me.”
When her husband returned, Anna showed him the message.
“He looked at me with a blank face, making no effort to deny it. He even tried to make me feel it was my fault. It turned my whole reality into a lie, like nothing I had lived all the years together was true. It felt like my head had exploded. Nothing made sense.”
With hindsight, Anna realised the couple had drifted in different directions. Although she’d left school without qualifications, by her early forties Anna had obtained degrees up to Masters level in computer science and teaching.
“I was growing as a person and he was staying the same.”
Nonetheless, the couple tried to give the marriage one last go — a decision that quickly faltered.
“He’d say things like ‘haven't you got over it yet?’ He acted like he was the victim.”
Anna asked him to leave. “He panicked, asking where he would go because he was so used to me being the one to sort out all the problems. So I thought, I'll do it one more time. I found him a room, paid for it and told him to go. That was it really. Decision made, and the new journey began.”
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At last, Anna was able to think about what she wanted.
“I hadn't done much for myself since I got married. Even studying was motivated by my need to make sure I could support my sons while they were growing up. So now was the time for me to do everything I had wanted to do when I was an ambitious young girl. Part of that was to give myself my own space and let my boys go.”
Anna’s eldest son was married and had moved out, but her two younger sons, then aged 20 and 22, were still at home. Anna found them rentals of their own.
“I knew if they stayed with me I would just be ‘mum’ and I would never be able to grow as a woman. And they needed to grow up too. I also didn't want my sons to feel they would have to look after me, worry, or be sad for me.”
Next, Anna filed for an online divorce and sold her home.
“To really take off I knew I'd have to free myself from everything. My home, and all my stuff from the past. I was never much of a materialistic person anyway, so things were never going to be an issue for me. I was acting on instinct with no concrete plan, just going with the flow. I felt freedom I hadn't experienced since I was in my teens but this time I had a little more wisdom.”
After a brief period living with her sister, Anna visited her family in Cyprus, then set off to a Buddhist retreat in Nepal.
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“It was like seeing a film, something I’d never experienced in my life. What a culture shock! At the retreat, I had a small room with a shared shower. It wasn’t easy. We spent most of the time in the big temple, on cushions listening to the teachings of the monks and nuns, and practising meditation. Buddhism is so much deeper and harder to practice than I realised. I needed a softer touch to help me at that time.”
Anna needed a softer touch at this point because she was suffering from panic attacks. On returning to England, she discovered mindfulness.
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“Mindfulness is an aspect of Buddhism which teaches us how to stay in the moment. I love Jon Kabat-Zin's definition: You can't stop the waves but you can learn to surf. That to me is what mindfulness does. It helps us to accept what is, to rely on our inner strength to get through all the difficult times without staying in the darkness. It has helped me deal with my own anxiety and panic. Now fear isn't enough to stop me. I feel the fear, close my eyes and jump.”
Anna, now a certified mindfulness teacher, runs mindfulness based living courses, and supports people living with cancer, covering themes such as self-acceptance, getting lost in your mind (past, present and future thinking), and learning meditation.
She has also gained a jet-ski licence, taken up Tai Chi and Kung Fu, and has fully converted to Buddhism.
“I feel like I’ve gained a decade of my life. My divorce was my true liberation.”
Not so long ago, Anna met up with her ex, in order to thank him.
“And I meant it.”