It was one of those ‘too hot to walk’ Duke of Edinburgh’s Award afternoons we all long for when it’s raining. Gazing at the River Dart as I waited for a team, I had a moment of revelation.
I am now an ‘older generation’ outdoor instructor.
When I first started volunteering in the outdoors my trainees were the same age as my children. Things, especially time, have moved on.
Now it’s the staff I work with who are the same age as my children.
I have no issue with this. I like being in my fifties. I don’t mind that my next big birthday is 60. And in many ways I feel stronger and healthier than I have in some of my other decades.
But age does bring changes.
Despite my best efforts with walking and yoga I can’t do some of the physical things I used to, as well as I used to do them. My knees don’t like big steps, I have to think about how to exit a small tent and two physical days with not much sleep in between leave me feeling in need of recovery time.
On top of that there’s the menopause.
I think I’m heading over that particular hill now but my menopausal symptoms do still present a few issues. For example hesitating over useful words like ‘rucksack’ and muddling up my (or anyone else’s) left and right. My unpredictable inner heating system and ill-timed emotional moments aren’t quite as bad as they once were but still they pop up from time to time.
Despite all this I enjoy outdoor education as much now as I did when I was younger.
But I’ve had to adapt to carry on.
Here are my top three tips for continuing life as an outdoor instructor as you get older.
1. Recognise the strength in age
There’s no two ways about it. As I’ve aged bits of me have stopped working as well as they used to. There is a simple truth to this situation.
Sooner or later I will climb my last mountain.
But in the meantime I’m discovering there is strength as well as weakness in ageing.
I still have plenty to give as an outdoor instructor.
- I have more experience to share
- I find it easier to remain calm in a crisis
- I know how to avoid crises in the first place
- I am a more understanding colleague
- I have more stories to tell
2. Be honest
Initially I found it hard to admit to myself that I was ageing, let alone to other people. Even in the outdoor world, society has a tendency to see age as something to work against rather than embrace. The mantra ‘stay young’ is engrained in all of us but I would like to suggest an alternative.
Once I did that it became much easier to be honest with other people about how my age was impacting my practice as an outdoor instructor. I discovered by painful trial that the alternative to this wasn’t pretty. When I was out of breath at the top of a hill or exhausted at the end of a day, I wasn’t much use to the people I was instructing.
Here are examples of the language I now use.
- I can’t walk as fast as you so I’ll meet you at the top
- I need to set off a bit earlier to keep ahead of the group
- I’m going to sit down quietly for ten minutes then I’ll be back
- My knees won’t cope with that route but this one will be okay
3. Be brave enough to turn some work down
This one obviously has financial implications but I decided a while ago that it was far more sensible to say ‘no thanks’ to a job that was beyond my physical or mental capabilities than accept it and regret my decision.
Letting people down has never been my favourite thing.
My limited experience suggests employers appreciate this type of honesty. When you’re putting a team of staff together you need to know who will be able to do which job well and in ways that will benefit your clients.
Honest conversations and open decision making really pay off.
Time to hang up the route cards?
I imagine there isn’t an official retirement age for working outdoors either with young people or adults. I certainly hope not because I’m still enjoying myself too much to think about stopping yet. The people I work with don’t keep me young, nothing can do that, but they do keep me on my toes.
Which is exactly where I like to be.
But I won’t be afraid to call time if I ever I think it’s appropriate.