‘Welcome to your ninth decade’: how I learned to embrace ageing and make time for my pelvic floor

The card dropped through the letterbox just as I was leaving for my regular coaching session at the tennis club. “Welcome to your ninth decade,” it said. I’d just turned 80 and was planning to celebrate by doing a tandem skydive for a local charity.

I wasn’t shocked by the card’s message (no, really). I was prepared by the good-ageing philosophy of a thoughtful man called Cecil Kellehar who was fourscore years when he wrote for Choice, the lifestyle magazine for over-50s that I edited in the 1990s. Take it as it comes. Don’t rail against it. Have someone to love. Have something to do. Have something to look forward to. Keep fit.

The last one’s easy: I’ve played tennis since I was 10 and do so three times a week if I can. I’d even been asked to join an over-75s group playing indoors every week. Covid-19 and the lockdown ended that, as well as something else I was really looking forward to: jumping out of a plane. Meanwhile, I’m in a weekly Zoom choir and we happily sing out to our heart’s content.

I’ve got a husband and family (at a distance) to love and I’m always writing (journalists are like that), so that is certainly something to do. Emailing my MP about doing more to erase the inequalities revealed by the pandemic keeps me occupied.

“Take it as it comes”, was my dad’s philosophy too. But sometimes you just can’t accept what life throws at you. Incontinence, for instance. Reading Miriam Margolyes’ frank account of hanging on to her pee, I related instinctively. We all know if you laugh for too long you can leak!

But why on earth should it happen? Why is it so commonplace? At the end of the 1960s, after I’d had my two daughters, the health visitor encouraged me to do pelvic floor exercises daily. But I was a full-time working mother with a mortgage, and life went at such a speed that I never paid enough attention to my own body. When my son arrived in the mid 1970s, living pace was even faster – and tennis was put on hold.

By the mid 1980s, I was back on the court, expending energy and eradicating angst built up from working long hours on women’s magazines. Fashion, beauty makeovers and diets, Princess Diana and Fergie, royal gardens and fabulous knitting patterns kept me occupied. It was a strange time. My periods were all over the place, as were my emotions – and I was putting on weight.

It’s marvellous that we talk freely about women’s health today and it’s easier to find a sympathetic ear and a wealth of options to deal with oestrogen deficiency and menstrual problems. My heart went out to British tennis player Heather Watson whose performance in an important tournament was affected by the time of the month. Now you can avoid periods entirely if you want, with no ill effects – certainly no red or wet patches on tennis whites.

My solution was twice-yearly HRT implants, which kept me stable until the 1990s, when I unexpectedly started leaking urine. My GP said my bladder had prolapsed, dropped down into my vagina, so I began doing pelvic floor exercises with a vengeance. I was inspired by Diana Moran, the Green Goddess, who created a range of keep-fit exercises for Choice. She made it all look so easy!

At 60, I retired, just after the second of my older sisters died of ovarian cancer. Fearing this would be my fate, too, I used some pension money to go private to remove my womb and ovaries – and had a bladder “lift”. Fortunately, it didn’t involve the mesh, which has been devastating for many and is now banned. Mine was just a stitch, my surgeon said.

For 10 years, every Saturday morning I attended a pilates class – our lovely instructor Lidia helped us focus on strengthening the core: making the abdomen and back muscles stronger helps your pelvic floor muscles to control the bladder. We lay on our backs, breathing deeply in and out as we lowered first one leg then the other to the side, eight to 10 times.

I kick myself that I didn’t continue with pilates after we moved to the country. The wee problems recurred and I was back to wearing pads. Things improved a little when my GP suspected vaginal atrophy – caused by lack of oestrogen – and prescribed Vagifem, oestradiol tablets inserted like a pessary.

Despite all this, I found I still often make an urgent dash for the loo. As a consumer journalist for more than 45 years, I’m always looking for ways to make things better. Panties with integral pads are useful, as accidents are contained. I bought a Kegel8 Ultra 20 electronic pelvic toner, a device with a spoon-like object that goes into the vagina. It was difficult to lie down for half an hour a day with this in place, and I discovered the prolapse was back. This doesn’t happen to everyone, I hasten to say.

Then I read about Finnish Innovotherapy, a non-invasive training method using specially designed shorts and electrodes to generate contractions of the muscles. Five days a week, 30 minutes a day over 12 weeks certainly improved my awareness of my pelvic floor and the leaking lessened. It was a costly remedy: I bought it over six months, interest free. It may not be a realistic option for everyone – and you still have to do exercises.

One thing I’ve learned about myself is that I need to be given instructions, and having downloaded MyPFF app onto my iPad I squeeze and breathe to order. And there’s new hope: I came across Alex Miller, a Canadian fitness trainer, who believes she has found why our pelvic floor muscles lose their ability to work properly. As we age, we slump! Do you notice yourself hunching over – when you’re using a laptop, driving, sitting at the table or in an armchair. Instead of being upright, our head and chin go forward, as does the abdomen. Raise your shoulders and chin, bring your head back and your body is properly aligned.

Her combination of pilates and yoga exercises have shown me the error of my ways. I sit up straight, hold my tummy muscles in, breathing deeply in and out, and try to remember to use MyPFF app every day. When Covid-19 is gone, I’ll be ready to jump out of the plane – wearing a parachute, and hopefully no pad!