Meet Ruth Rose, founder of the Seaford Mermaids all year round daily swimming group, and the uk's oldest transgender woman.
I first came across Ruth about 5 years ago. It was a cold and bright winter morning on the South Coast and I was on the way to swim in the sea. I was visiting a friend who had just joined a local swimming group and she had told me about the charismatic woman who had inspired the formation of the sea swimming group. Walking down to the beach I saw Ruth, standing tall, majestic and fabulous. She was surrounded by a small group of people listening to her every word — about the tide, the temperature of the sea, the height of the waves, drinking in her immense knowledge before going in for their daily dip. Fast forward 5 years to today and there are now over 200 people who have been inspired to be part of Ruth’s Mermaid swimming group. Including me. People of all ages, all backgrounds, all genders but all with a common interest — their love of swimming in the sea.
One rainy morning in June 2021, I was lucky enough to spend time with Ruth. (She had of course been swimming, I hadn’t. Too wet!). What a joyful morning. Ruth’s story is full of inspiration, challenges, bravery, compassion. So much wisdom on how we can live the best life possible, at every age. So much wisdom that needs to be shared with you.
Ruth’s life is made up of many layers; navigator in the RAF in WWII, mechanical engineer, mountain rescuer and father to three children. I say to Ruth, your life is extraordinary. She brushes it off, “I don’t think I am unique at all”. But Ruth is unique. Ruth, who is now 88, is the UK’s oldest person to undergo gender reassignment surgery at 81.
Ruth shares that she knew at 9 that she felt different. It wasn’t until she had been living as a woman for 6 years, when her GP suggested to Ruth that she have the operation to fully transition, that Ruth could really become who she had wanted to be. The joy that the operation has given Ruth is palpable, as is the sense of her finally being the person she always was. “My doctor said there was no reason for me to not have the surgery. I had been living a life of pretense. I was so sure that I wanted it.” We both agree that Ruth’s GP ability to see Ruth the person — her vitality, energy and optimism and not Ruth’s chronological age as highly significant in Ruth’s journey to become who she had always known she was.
As we talk, we meander through a diverse array of topics that mirror the richness of Ruth’s life — the shared difficulty of choosing the right dress to wear; how to understand tides (I want to find out); secret RAF wartime missions navigating by the moon; the joys of coldwater and her army of friends. In every moment of our conversation I am struck by Ruth’s joy filled voice, a laugh always ready to bubble up, her optimism contagious. At 88 she is still full of purpose. “I want to feel that I am still contributing” And she is, significantly. She is currently involved in leading the NHS Futures older patients research group, as well as a local campaigner for several issues to preserve the local seascape. Her energy is impressive, particularly with the knowledge that at the beginning of the year she was in hospital for almost 2 months after a horrific car crash and where she also caught COVID.
We both agree that Ruth’s GP ability to see Ruth the person — her vitality, energy and optimism and not Ruth’s chronological age as highly significant in Ruth’s journey to become who she had always known she was.
I asked her about her recent time at the hospital. She describes the dead bodies being wheeled out daily in the hospital. She describes feeling that the doctors would often only see her age from her notes, and not the person she was and is. She gives one of her delicious laughs at this point. Little did they know the force of Ruth Rose or the powerful community of friends she has fostered through her love of swimming, so many who took turns to stay with her, buy food, and keep her company when she first came out of hospital.
Literally weeks after leaving the hospital, Ruth was back in the sea. She is adamant that the daily challenges of swimming in the sea, the cold, the hardiness that grows from this daily baptism whatever the weather, is the key to her recovery. As a cold water swimmer myself, my instinct is yes, that is a key factor. But there is a greater force in Ruth. And this is her positive mindset, her desire to keep looking to the future, to keep trying new things, constantly taking part, being involved. Her life is a testament to taking everything on, the highs and the lows. And it is Ruth’s philosophy for life here that I want to share with you all — she even has a name for it — Ruth’s Five-A-Day, and a diagram to boot! I think you will see that Ruth definitely practices what she preaches. And after having met her, I will be closely following her steps to healthy ageing.
We end our chat talking about the importance of older role models. Not the national role models like Helen Mirren, “they become unattainable, special, out of reach” but the importance of championing local role models. People like Ruth, who we see daily, showing everyone she meets that life is for living until the day you die. I for one, am inspired. And if the growing list of Mermaids is to go by, I am not alone!
Ruth’s five a day plan for healthy living
You reach your retirement age. You’ve got 30 years of active life ahead of you. That’s half the life you’ve lived to date. Now make up your mind, what the hell you’re going to do for 30 years. Don’t just sit in a chair and expect nothing to happen – Ruth Rose
Step 1 — Look after your body, your health, your diet, your weight, everything. Make sure that you’re a fit. person. At any age, it’s largely up to you. Take control.
Step 2 — Now, when you’ve got your health sorted, the next most important thing is having friends. When you grow up,most of your friends are people at work. When you stop working you quickly lose contact with them. But you’ve actually got to put effort into friends. Friends are so important – loneliness, isolation, are killers for older people. So having friends is an essential task to work on.
Step 3 — The next step is to try something new. Don’t think your life is over. It doesn’t have to be a 26 mile marathon or anything like that. There is always something new to try that is within your capabilities. When the chance arises. Try it. No one will laugh at you for trying. They might laugh with you. And that brings happiness all round. Including you. And you never know how good you may turn out to be.
Step 4 — Give something back. The world owes you nothing. If you have the feeling that you can do something for others, do it. However small or insignificant it is, you earn the respect of others. You cannot have self respect until you have the respect of those around you. If you don’t have self respect you will be miserable until you get some.
Step 5 — The last thing is the most important, and that is to combine all these elements together and make a balanced life. To love yourself and your life. To appreciate your life. If you don’t appreciate the marvellous world we live in, you have wasted a day of your life. You will eventually get near to dying and wish that you hadn’t wasted all that time. Drink in every last drop whole you can. The bluebells come only once a year. You should go and look at them every year!
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This story has been categorised as:Health & Wellbeing