Inspirational seniors who turned their twilight years to highlight ones

Why give in to the passage of time when in older age you can change your love life, your career – or even your gender?

Martine Shackerley-Bennett had a sex change at the age of 67. Now 70, she is a playwright, director, lecturer, project organiser and therapist.

From as young as three, Martine felt she was a girl trapped in a man's body. "By my teenage years, I would sometimes dress as a girl, but when the postman caught me, I panicked and I became very macho and got into fights. It was a really confusing time," she says.

At 21, she escaped from the UK to North America, where her adventures ranged from farming in the Midwest to pan-handling in LA, and it was there that she met a psychologist, who encouraged her to live as a woman for 10 days. "For the first time ever, I thought, 'This is who I really am'. But then one day, I caught my reflection walking down the street and was horrified. I'm six foot and I felt monstrous. Without any internet to realise there were others like me, I buried the whole thing and lived as a man again."

Returning to England in her mid-twenties, Martine's life took a more positive turn. "I trained as a teacher, a career that I loved and which led me to become head of drama at a secondary school. Best of all, it opened my eyes to the arts world and I wound up setting up a youth theatre and writing and directing my own plays."

Around the same time, Martine met her first wife, with whom she had two sons. "It was liberating, because she allowed me to dress up as a woman at home, even helping to make me up, although it was only ever in secret and I lived in real fear that someone would find out and my career would be over. Even the boys knew nothing."

By her forties, they'd split up, but starting over again led Martine to new opportunities once again, this time as an art director at an arts centre in Liverpool and later a drama therapist – and, thanks to doing a Masters degree in creative writing, a playwright and novelist.

"Around then, I met my second wife and we had two more children, a boy and a girl," she says. "But while she understood my need to dress as a woman, she still wanted me to keep it secret, whereas for me the need to live as a woman full-time was affecting my identity hugely."

Eventually, when their children were eight and 10, they told them, as well as Martine's older sons. "I felt relieved, but it was too much for my wife, who eventually left me," says Martine.

Now in her sixties, Martine felt she had nothing to lose. "I had my ears pierced and I told friends, none of whom batted an eyelid, and not long afterwards, I went through with gender reassignment surgery at the age of 67."

Life has never been so good, she says. "It's not all plain sailing. My family have said dreadful things and one of my children doesn't talk to me. But for the first time, I'm true to myself and my biography practically poured out of me. In truth, I feel I'm only just beginning my life."

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Young at heart: Barbara Cooper and Ronald Brind

Barbara Cooper, 91, and Ronald Brind, 86, fell in love in their eighties.

Barbara remembers having eyes for Ron when she first met him more than 40 years ago. "I liked him straight away," she giggles. But although she was on her own, following her husband's death when she was 45, Ron was married, so she never let on.

But when Ron's wife died six years ago, one thing led to another. "I can't even describe how wonderful it is to have a partner after 40 years of being on my own," she says. "Falling in love has exactly the same effect, whatever your age."

"Might I add, it's not just platonic," adds Ron, smiling mischievously.

Barbara was a mother of three children – now in their fifties and sixties – and living in Bahrain when her husband died. "He worked for an oil company and because I could speak Arabic, they kept me on. The children went to boarding school and came to see me in the holidays."

When Barbara was made redundant around six years later, she settled back in Kew in west London, where she joined as many societies as she could. "That's where I met Ron and his wife and we became good friends," she says.

Ron had met his wife, who was from Poland, when he was 36. "She had two girls, one of whom she was able to bring here and live with us," he says.

Ron recalls the couple sharing happy times with Barbara and her children, including Christmas parties. "I knew her children well, so when we got together, it all felt very natural."

Ron and Barbara don't live like ordinary pensioner couples, however. "We spend weekends together, while in the weekdays we have our independence, living in our separate homes, five miles apart," says Barbara.

"Although we are in good health, we have a lot of hospital appointments because of our age and we belong to so many associations and clubs," explains Ron. "In fact, I've just come back from aerobics and there's gardening to do later."

Ballroom dancing is their biggest passion and this they always do together. "We're still hip," says Ron. "We still have the beat and we love it, despite the hard work. We had to rehearse for three months to open the Twickenham show. We even appeared on Strictly once."

The couple disagree about plenty of topics, including the Royal Family, says Barbara. "But we never row. Life's too short, especially for us, although we have no plans at all to slow down. Life is for living."

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Lynn Ruth Miller is a cabaret artist

Lynn Ruth Miller, 80, became an author aged 67, a stand-up comedian at 70 and a cabaret performer at 71

Lynn Ruth Miller is feisty and fearless. In fact, it was when she took her clothes off publicly at the ripe old age of 71 that she kicked off a whole new career as a cabaret performer – her most successful career to date. Dubbed the Joan Rivers of Fringe Comedy at the Edinburgh International Fringe, Miller has many awards for her writing and comedy. Prior to her stage work, Lynn describes her life as a series of failures and almost-got-there's, but in fact she's had many successes, not least as a teacher and writer in lots of different jobs spanning many years and across North America, where she's from.

It was after her second marriage fell apart that she decided to go back to education.

Lynn was still working hard in her late sixties, by now writing books and columns. It was then that she saw an ad for the San Francisco Comedy Club. "Being a features writer, I was always on the hunt for good stories and so when I saw it, I decided to do a story on them. I called the guy up and he said I could take the class."

To her amazement, she was a hit. "People were asking me to sign their tickets from the final exam when I left. I'd been struggling to eat on my freelance wage, so I felt overwhelmed and quickly started creating comedy shows."

People came – more each time. "One day, someone suggested I add music. I have a perfectly horrible voice, but I had a try with a song called "Strip Poker" from my youth. I put on some fancy underwear and someone shoved a five dollar bill in my bra. I'd had no relationships since my marriages and so nobody had been anywhere near my brassière. I couldn't believe it. I've been doing cabaret acts ever since."

As anyone who saw Lynn on Britain's got Talent – or, indeed, America's got Talent – will testify, Lynn's comedy style is one-liners. "Meanwhile, my cabaret is funny stories. I love telling stories," she says.

While she didn't win either of the two TV shows, she's had plenty of awards and the gigs just keep coming. "Sure, I have aches and pains," she says. "Who doesn't at this age? But it doesn't make me sit at home. I always say, I will probably die on my way to a gig." µ

All four people will be discussing their experiences on 16 July at East London's The Book Club at 7pm. They will appear as panellists for a discussion focusing on how ageing isn't a sickness. For more information and tickets, visit wearetbc.com

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