The age of enlightenment: three nonagenarians share invaluable life lessons

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As the Queen prepares to turn 90, we ask three nonagenarians for the lessons learnt from their rich and accomplished lives

Words: Lauren Libbert and Zoe Beaty

Diana Armfield (pictured above), 95, artist and member of the Royal Academy of Arts, lives in Kew, London, with her husband, Bernard Dunstan, a fellow artist of the RA. She has three children and two grandchildren

Money isn’t as important as you think. Don’t worry about it. Try to have enough, but don’t set out to get lots because there’s just no need, enough is ‘enough’.

Look after yourself. Physical ageing is difficult. It’s a permanent preoccupation at this age, to stay as well as we can. It’s important to look after yourself whatever your age, because you don’t want to inflict your health worries on other people. I do the exercises I’m told to for precisely this reason, but it’s not easy – it’s so boring!

Don’t question happiness when you find it. Pursue the things that interest you, and take time to get to know yourself. Establish your career and get your name known in your field before marriage or children if that’s what you decide to do. I’d already made a name for myself before I married Bernard, so I kept my maiden name professionally. Once we married, certain people only knew me as Bernard’s wife – they didn’t know I was Diana Armfield! 

Not everything needs to be ‘perfect’ in life. Anxiety has always been a big problem for me. I’ve always panicked that unless I put 110% into things, they won’t work out. I used to worry constantly about ‘getting it right’, and it’s only now that I’m older I’ve realised things naturally tend to work out for the best. If you’re a worrier like me, it’s imperative to communicate your anxieties to your friends and family – they can almost always help.

Don’t rush important decisions. I felt Bernard was right for me almost immediately, but during the war years we spent time apart – and that was a good thing. I never forgot him, nor he me, but meeting other people made us evaluate what we really felt for each other. I wasn’t nearly as happy with the others but being with them confirmed that he was the person I was truly in love with.

Take up crafting (if you don’t already!). Up until 25 years ago, I was still sewing clothes for myself and my family. I was always making things – I think I could have been a craftsperson if I weren’t a painter. It’s not just about saving money, making things is good for your health, one of the most nourishing things you can do. It’s about coordinating the fine motor skills of your hands with your eyes, which makes it a great way of developing your mind, whatever your age.

Give your relationship room to breathe. Marriage is about compromise – and not treading on each other’s toes. Bernard and I have always had lots of interests separate to each other, and enjoyed meeting people. What’s lovely is to come back and enjoy sharing your experiences. Communication is crucial to a relationship, both physically and mentally.

Make the most of every day. Growing old is annoying because you need to ‘rest’ throughout the day. It means the day isn’t long enough to do all you want to do – so make the most of the uninterrupted days of youth while you can!

Academicians In Focus: Bernard Dunstan RA And Diana Armfield RA is at the Royal Academy of Arts, London until 24 April

Like the Queen, Cecelia Beaugeard, 90, was in the ATS during the war. Widowed, she has two daughters, two grandchildren and one great-granddaughter. She lives in Dornoch, Scotland

Know what drives you. Living through a war meant you couldn’t think too far into the future – there was an emphasis on doing what will make you happy now. I’ve lived that way my whole life. People don’t listen to their inner feelings enough now. It’s easy to get distracted by what other people think. That doesn’t matter. Listen to your own feelings and you’ll find happiness in lots of unexpected places. The happiest time in my life was when I retired – but even at 72 I was working at Sainsbury’s on the tills. I enjoyed that a lot.

Love will find you. If it hasn’t yet it’s not the right time, so stop looking. When you search too hard, you can’t see it. Trust it when it comes along: on my first blind date with my husband, Gordon, I hid behind a pillar to see if I liked the look of him. I did. We spent the night talking and dancing and I knew he was the one for me. 

Remember everyone has difficult times. Even millionaires. Things will be harder at times, but in the end, you have to grit your teeth and get on with it. Life has thrown things at me – my younger sister died of meningitis in 1944 aged 15, and my mother was diagnosed with cancer around the same time. And I nursed my husband for two years before he died in 2012 after 67 years of marriage. I miss him awfully, though I treasure our memories. But when I feel sad I put on music; anything from André Rieu to Elvis Presley and modern music. I get lost in it. Sometimes I have a little jig, too. It helps you carry on.

Be content with what you have. Young people today seem to look for more than we did – there’s an attitude that you have to improve on what you’ve got. I’ve always tried to be content with what I have – the only thing I wish I’d done more of is travel. But I was lucky to enjoy my children, working and spending time with my husband. I think everyone would be happier if they just put more effort into what they already have.

Don’t stop learning. I try to learn more every day. Technology has been a wonderful learning curve. I have a laptop, an iPad and mobile phone. I love FaceTiming my family and I’m so glad I learned to. I do all my shopping online – even my clothes shopping. I love it. 

Perspectives change. It’s difficult to imagine the years stretching ahead of you when you’re young – I didn’t think about being this age when I was 30. But I’m glad I made the most of friendships when I had the chance. At this age, you begin to lack friends as they pass away. Have parties – we always had one at New Year. Enjoy life. As hard as it’s been at times, I’ve enjoyed mine so much. 

Dr Barbara Dyer, 90, was a chest physician for 40 years, and now lives in North Somerset. Divorced, she has three children and five grandchildren

Stand up for yourself. In my day we had to put up with a lot of male chauvinist pigs. I remember working in a hospital with a male surgeon who would complain during a surgical retraction – which required a bit of force – that women weren’t strong enough to do it. It’s shocking to think of it now. So few women became consultants in my day because of men like that.

Remember that time is the one thing you can never replace. I wish I’d spent more time with my three children when they were young. In those days you took no more than 10 weeks’ maternity leave and went back to work full-time, otherwise you’d lose your maternity pay. I had an excellent nanny, but it was difficult going back to work so quickly. Nowadays, it’s possible to work part-time and even job share – I feel I missed out on that. 

Always fight for what is rightfully yours. I want women to experience the same freedoms as men but I wouldn’t want to have the same attitudes as them. The gender pay gap is appalling and when I listen to women in important jobs speaking on the radio, I wonder if they have the seniority and financial respect they deserve. I doubt it. 

Never put a relationship above your own happiness. I got divorced in 1977 and found being single very difficult. People didn’t really want women like me about – too threatening – and I found it hard to keep up with social circles. But even though it wasn’t easy, I knew that divorcing was the right thing to do.

Don’t worry so much about your appearance. I stopped wearing make-up a few years ago after I kept eating my lipstick! When I was younger and used to go to parties, I liked to experiment with eyeshadow – I’d wear gold shimmer on my lids.

Value your parents now because they won’t be around forever. It’s a hard realisation to come to. When I lost my parents it made me wish that I’d done more for them when they were alive. Even though they were ill and it was a release for them, it took a long time for me to get over it. Your parents really do know you better than anyone else in the world. 

Opening photography: ©Dennis Toff, with thanks to the Royal Academy and