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Healthy ageing – Barbara

Barbara Hague 2 350 465

At age 70, Barbara Hague has had her health challenges. However, the Perth grandmother is still living life to the full, staying active, mentally alert and independent. It's all helping her to enjoy strong mental health and wellbeing as she gets older.

Born in New Zealand, Barbara first moved to Australia with her husband to live when she was about 24. She gave birth to her only child, a daughter, in Australia before returning to New Zealand to raise her there. As an adult, Barbara's daughter returned to Australia to live, so Barbara eventually did the same, making the move at the age of 60. "She's had her family and they live in Perth, so why wouldn't I be where my grandkids are," she says.

Although Barbara says she is from "healthy stock", with three healthy siblings, at the tender age of 21 she suffered a heart attack. Doctors attributed it to her use of the contraceptive pill. "It was new then and there were reactions to it, and part of those reactions were heart problems," she says.

Barbara is happily single, but has had three relationships. The first was her marriage, which lasted about 10 years and produced her daughter. Her most recent was a "marvellous" 20-year relationship, which eventually petered out. "We're actually still friends and we've been apart for 20 years, so I've known him 40 years," she says.

Her working life has been varied. She was a hairdresser and a dental assistant before settling into office work, including being an office manager with the RSA, the New Zealand equivalent of Australia's RSL, or Returned and Services League.

However, Barbara now no longer works, after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) five years ago.

As the MS began to, in her words, affect her "brain power", Barbara began house cleaning for veterans, "which I really loved", she says.

"When I could only manage one clean a day, it coincided with retirement age, so that's what I did."

Barbara suspects she has had MS since at least her late 20s, having suffered from numbness for as long as she can remember.

"All my life, I feel I've had numb fingers and feet and that was the start of it," she says. "I would to be saying to every doctor I ever had, 'why are my fingers numb?'. [They'd reply] 'can't tell you.' But eventually here in Perth I've found a doctor who pursued it."

While she says it was "a relief" to finally have a diagnosis – "it was like, 'thank god we can put a name to all these ridiculous little ailments that seem to befall me but nobody else' " – unfortunately the sort of MS she has cannot be treated. Barbara has primary progressive MS, which doesn't respond to medication. "That's why it's probably taken so long to diagnose, because it just ambles along," she says.

However, MS doesn't get in the way of Barbara remaining active and independent. "I live alone and I do all my own housework and keep a garden and do my own shopping," she says. "I walk on sticks, but that's nothing; at least I'm walking. Yes, it's all good."

When we talk to Barbara, she is in fact in Sydney helping her sister, a year younger than her, to move house (their two brothers both still live in New Zealand).

"I can pretty much do anything, but I'm the cleaner because she's a big, strong, healthy girl and she lifts all the boxes and things," she says.

Barbara attends the MS Society in Perth every week for group training with a physiologist. While it's of physical benefit to her, it has also served to enhance her social life.

"The physiologist puts us through [exercises] round the gym, so much so that we are all exhausted and we have to go for coffee afterwards," she laughs. "That's probably my only social thing because I'm basically a bit of a loner, I like my own company. I'm not a great social animal … but I'm quite happy in myself."

Barbara only really has 'alone' time on weekends, as she lives right next door to her grandchildren's school. They are dropped off with her every morning at 7.30am and picked up from her after school, ensuring she stays connected with her family.

"It's fantastic. I get to see them every day and then I just leave them to their family thing on the weekends," says Barbara. "I need [my alone time] by then."

Due to her MS, Barbara follows what is essentially the Mediterranean diet; she ensures she eats "lots of leafy greens" and other vegetables, as well as olive oil, seeds and nuts. She has no added sugar in her diet and also avoids gluten, both for her own health and her daughter's.

"If I do eat bread it's gluten-free," she says. "I only have gluten-free flour in my house because my daughter has coeliac disease."

She ensures she gets plenty of good fats in her diet for her brain health, which she says is her "first priority", as an avid devourer of Sudoku puzzles, cryptic crosswords and books. Her bookshelf is stocked with reference books, including five on brain health which informs her diet.

"Well, it's not a diet, it's a regimen," she says. "So, there are certain things that I don't eat and there are things that I make sure I do get plenty of."

And finally, while Barbara is "not really into money", she has no financial stresses, having what she needs to be comfortable in retirement. "When I listen to everybody else, I think I'm poor because I don't have a lot," she says. "But I'm comfortable, I've got no worries. It doesn't bother me that I don't have half a million for my retirement. I've got enough to travel a little bit, so that's all I want.

"It doesn't bother me as long as I've got enough to buy a bottle of red and my hummus and crackers."

Visit our Healthy ageing page for more stories from women about their experiences with getting older.