Gladys, 96: “I would recommend tai chi to anyone”

Gladys Grimstead

She’s a tai-chi-practising 96-year-old who has bounced back from many setbacks. And having a pacemaker fitted has given her a new lease of life, she tells Sarah Brealey.

Gladys is the oldest in her tai chi class – in fact, some people in the class are younger than her grandchildren.

Most people find it hard to believe that she’s 96. She has been doing tai chi for five years, but has been active all her life.

“I don’t feel any older than I did when I was 50,” Gladys, from Portsmouth, says. “The tai chi is lovely. I would recommend it to anyone, and afterwards you feel a lot better than you did when you started.”

Gladys took up tai chi after an unexplained fall led to her being referred to a falls prevention course and, later, a council-run exercise class which covered strength and balance exercises. When it finished, the instructor, Debbie Pentland, asked Gladys if she would like to take her tai chi class at a local community centre. 

I don’t feel any older than I did when I was 50

Tai chi can improve flexibility, balance, strength and co-ordination. Older adults at risk of falls are particularly encouraged to do exercises to improve strength and balance (such as tai chi, yoga or dancing) at least two days a week.

Three years ago, Gladys blacked out and had another fall. After further tests, a heart rhythm problem was diagnosed, and she went on to have a pacemaker fitted. She hasn’t had any problems since then. “When it was first fitted it felt quite uncomfortable, and I felt like it stuck out of my chest, but it is fine now,” she says, and adds: “I am pleased to have it. I think it is amazing what medical science can do these days. If you need a pacemaker, there is no need to worry about having one. It has been like a new lease of life for me. ”

She certainly has a lot of energy. Every Friday, Gladys bakes cakes and gives them to friends and neighbours (she doesn’t eat any herself ). “She has so many friends and is making more all the time,” says her daughter Gill, 71. “She does so much for people, like baking and sewing. And she has helped me so much.”

Gladys Grimstead doing a tai chi classGladys lives alone and enjoys being independent; she does her own cooking, cleaning and shopping and walks as much as she can.

A few months ago, she had a new bathroom fitted and the workmen asked her if she wanted a stair lift put in. Gladys was horrified and responded: “Over my dead body!”

Gladys puts her long life and fitness down to the fact that she has never drunk or smoked.

Overcoming challenges

But she has had her share of challenges, including pernicious anaemia, an autoimmune condition that affects the stomach, and womb cancer when she was in her 30s. She had major surgery to treat the cancer four times in the 1950s.

Gladys says: “The children used to come home from school and find an ambulance outside. At one point my husband was told I would never come out of hospital. I was in hospital from September through to February that year and then I went to a convalescent home for a few months longer.”

Gladys also lost a son in infancy and another in an accident when he was 15. Her husband Jack died suddenly of an undiagnosed heart problem nine years later, in 1974. He was 58. “He went to work and just never came back,” says Gladys. “We had no idea he was ill.”

She says: “I had friends and family who have rallied round to help me. But at the end of the day you have to live with it. You never get over it but you can learn to live with it. I think there is no point inflicting your misery on other people.”

Gladys Grimstead practising tai chi on the beach For most of her life Gladys did office work, but after her son Jeff died, one way she found solace was by working at a school. “My son’s headmaster suggested I would like to be back among children,” she says. “So I worked as a dinner lady from 1966 to 1980.”Gladys Grimstead practising tai chi on the beach

She’s also a talented seamstress who has worked for a naval tailors, and made all her own clothes and those of her children. Now, she has three children, five grandchildren, ten great-grandchildren and eight great-great-grandchildren. As she says: “Christmas gets very expensive!”

Riding high

Gladys has been a keen cyclist all her life, and after she was widowed, decided to get a motorbike too, which she rode until she was 70.

One of Gladys’ motorbiking tales shows her strength of character and resourcefulness. Her son took her on a trip to Germany, and she travelled there on the back of his motorbike. “While I was there I bought enough fabric to cover a three-piece suite,” she recalls. “Of course there wasn’t much room on the motorbike, so in order to get it back with me I wrapped the fabric round myself, my son lifted me on to the back of the motorbike and we rode like that non-stop, for 13 ½ hours back to the ferry. I couldn’t move at all but it was lovely and warm!

If you think you can do it, then do it. Don’t say ‘I can’t do that’

“Then when we finally got home, it was about 7am and I discovered we were locked out. Luckily I always keep a jemmy handy, there was one in the conservatory and I managed to lever the door open.”

After she stopped motorbiking, Gladys still cycled everywhere, including around Sri Lanka on a trip there with Gill. At the age of 92, she stopped cycling on the advice of her concerned family. But she missed it and at the age of 98 she joined a local group called Wheels for All, which provides adapted bikes for use by anyone with limited mobility, from age-related loss of balance to multiple disabilities. Her daughter says: “She is delighted to be able to take up her favourite activity again and happily rides around the local park on a bright red tricycle. She is getting faster and more adventurous every week.”

Gladys’ advice to other people is “not to be lazy”. She says: “If you think you can do it, then do it. Don’t say ‘I can’t do that’.”

“She’s had setbacks, but she always bounces back,” says her daughter. “She is a hero, so full of life. She never does anything by halves and never gives up. She is just a one-off.”

2017 update

Gladys turns 100 on September 10th 2017. Four years on from our interview, she's still cycling with Wheels for All, as well as doing tai chi every week. Happy birthday, Gladys!

More useful information