Granny's gone viral The rise of the Insta-gran

Social media influence doesn't just belong to the young – it's now being grasped by bloggers and Instagrammers in their seventies, eighties and beyond. Among them is Glasgow's Grandma Williams who is on a mission to change the image of old age. But please, don't call her a sex blogger just because she mentions sex sometimes. That would be ageist.

MORNINGS in the Grandma Williams house, a large, airy building in Glasgow's Hyndland area, start at around about 7.30. “If I’m lucky, David, my husband,” the 83-year-old says, “brings me a great big pot of tea and then I’ll stay in bed until I’ve drunk it and then I’ll do all my tweeting and writing and I might not get up until 10.30am.”

Joyce Williams is not a bad advert for old age in the silver surfer era. “I love being in bed,” she says. “The other morning I did an interview with someone from some paper. I was lying in bed with my pot of tea and my night dress – they didn’t know I was doing that. That’s what you do when you’re old. You don’t have to get up. You can choose what you want to do. You can say I’m not stuffing doing that. It’s a lovely feeling.”

It’s mid-morning now on a Thursday, and, over coffee, Williams is putting the world bang to rights. The pensions time bomb, ageism in the work place, the myth of the old as generation lonely, are all issues she tackles. When I ask her how we’re going to sort all that out, she eyeballs me. “I’d like to make this a challenge to you. How are you going to get it sorted for your generation? This is your problem.”

She writes about such issues, and others, in her regular Grandma Williams blog, in posts with provocative, upbeat headlines. “Getting the buzz at 80+ Not a minister for loneliness – let’s have one for excitement”. “Sex at 70? Sex at 80? Of course!” “Red carpet at 82! What to wear?” “Stereotyping of oldies? Stupid!”

One of her concerns, as we chat, is over the struggle that current midlifers are going to have when we meet old age, in huge numbers, and find we have no pensions really to speak of, are in the grip of an obesity crisis, and also, if current trends continue, struggle to get jobs because of ageism in the workplace.

“I really want to challenge your generation to stop and think. We fought for these things – and you’re threatening to lose them. Your pension rights and health gains are going backwards. We made enormous health gains. People died on average at 62. Now it's 81. You’re going to have to tackle the obesity issue - that’s your problem."

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Far from disappearing into her sunset years, she is gaining the kind of social media following many a millennial would envy. Williams, a former physiotherapist, is part of a growing trend – the older social media influencer, sometimes called the Instagrans or Insta-grandmas. They include, for instance, 106-year-old Swede, Dagny Valborg Carlsson, who started blogging after she did a class on computing at the age of 99, and 79-year-old Eileen Smith from Ireland, always elegant, with bouffant hair swept back in a bun, in Instagram posts that have have garnered a following of 40k. Like most of her ilk, Smith espouses a carefree, outward-looking attitude. She has said she keeps a note by her bed that urges, "Get up, dress up, get out and don’t look back."

Possibly most famous is Baddiewinkle, a 90-year-old American Instagrammer with grey-haired rebel attitude, whose account sports the tagline “stealing your man since 1928”. This former factory-worker and farmer, whose real name is Helen Ruth Elam Van Winkle, began her social media career after her great-granddaughter took a photograph of her sunbathing in the garden, whilst wearing cut-off denim shorts, a rainbow tie-dye T-shirt and neon-pink marijuana leaf print socks. She now has 3.8 million followers.

Williams seems a youngster by comparison. Blogging is something she fell into almost by accident, as a way of making new friends after she had moved, at the age of 80, to Glasgow where her husband David, whom she had married six years earlier, had a home. “I saw this sign, saying, 'Blogging for beginners'," she recalls. "I’m always curious about things and I thought, I don’t actually know what a blog is but it’s writing and I love writing.”

When she turned up she found the oldest, apart from her, was a 40-year-old. Most were in their thirties. When the class leaders told her she should find a topic, she struggled. “Then they said, 'Well why don’t you write about being old?' They’d been so interested in what I’d been saying to them. They’d not really talked to an old person before. That was when I started to think that I really wanted to get across this idea that the image of old age is wrong. It’s not like the media say. It’s not so grim. I wanted to balance the media’s doom and gloom. I thought, I will post the positives that the media doesn’t publish.”

Several years on, Williams is still all about the positives. Not only does she believe that she is happier now than almost any other stage in her life, but she believes the course of history has made things better for most people. “I do think the world has got better. The quote I love is that Louis XIV, the Sun King, had 116 chefs, he could have a choice of 116 dishes at his meals. We can go into Tesco and get 2000. We are richer than the Sun King – the average person.”

She tells tales from her own youth, growing up in industrial South Yorkshire, which put our current woes in perspective. Her grandmother was so poor that when she got ill in old-age she was cared for in the local workhouse – but Williams now, she observes, like many her age, has a nice pension. Life expectancy has enormously extended. She says she’d like to get together with a few young women now to talk about how bad it was back then.

“Attitudes around abortion and homosexuality and contraception were so dreadful. There was this whole disapproval of bastardy in my childhood. My best friend got pregnant at university. She had to go into a home to have the baby. It was given away for adoption. Never saw it again. She would have made a wonderful mother. It wasn’t okay to be a single parent then. It was a scandal.”

#MeToo, meanwhile, is something she doesn't "understand". "What is it?," she says. "It’s all this 'I was abused as a kid'. But we all were. It was normal. We learned to laugh. There was a flasher who turned up at our school gate most lunchtimes and we all had a wander down to have a giggle. You just learned to laugh. We didn’t take it seriously. We weren’t harmed by it."

What she wanted to be, she decided, when she wrote a business plan for her blog, was a “national ageing influencer - a go-to person about ageing”. “I’ve done that,” she says. “There are other influencers out there, Charlotte Rampling, Joan Bakewell, Helen Mirren, but they’re famous for different reasons. They haven’t got there from being just an old person, with no other reason to be famous.”

Many of the older people causing a sensation on Instagram are those that seem to bust stereotypes in some sort of outrageous way, by wearing flamboyant outfits, saying shocking things or by doing some extraordinary feat. Lili Hayes, in the United States – Instagram bio "always a little pissed” – has won over 100k followers for her posts in which she is seen dressed in streetwear, sporting a signature Supreme cap, while making faces or working out to Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda.

Or there are the wild risk-takers, like Dilys Price, who set the world record for the oldest female parachute jump, a long-term blogger on her own website, who only just joined Instagram, declaring “I am one of the few octogenarians now on Instagram at 86 years young!”

But Williams isn’t about such extremes. She doesn’t think you needed to be diving out of an aeroplane or running an ultrathon to prove that your late years can be lived well. “You don’t need to go skydiving,” she says. “You can do if you wish. But all you need to do is get yourself out the house and go for a walk, with a dog, or look at the flowers. Life is great. There is no need to be excessively fit. There’s a lot of research now on the need to do some weight-training.” She shuffles in her chair and begins doing some push ups. “I do it in this arm chair. Don’t need to go to a gym.”

Why does she think her blog has worked? “I’ve worked very hard at it. It's only been two and a half years and I’ve written way over a hundred blogs. I’ve tweeted every morning for all of that time. I’ve done a lot of research into ageing and every time I’ve found an interesting blog about ageing and ageism, I’ve tweeted it with comments. I’ve explored the internet and found anybody who is an influencer in ageing and I’ve always sent them my blogs.”

Of those hundred plus blogs, three of her posts have got her more publicity than anything else – landing her, for instance, on television, being interviewed by Philip Schofield on This Morning. These three, though a fraction of her output, have had her labelled, across the media, as a sex blogger or sexpert – and it’s to this that she objects. Yes, they were about sex but that doesn't make her a sex blogger. The way she has been labelled is, she says, is a kind of voyeuristic ageism in itself.

“A respectable professional woman with an MBE, chair of a national society, being labelled Grandma Williams sex blogger? They wouldn’t have done that if it were you, a woman in your forties. No one would pick it up and make a headline and invite you to speak on television with Philip Schofield.”

The first of these posts was written because of the conversations she was having with other people on her workshop. Some, she recalls, were writing dating advice blogs. “One of them in particular, was pretty frank, about how to do a good blow job, and they were talking about this and they were looking at me, thinking is it all right to talk about this in front of her. I thought, hang on a minute! I’ve had 60 years more experience than you of sex. I do know what a blow job is. I realised that it was something that needed to be said, because that was again part of the image of old age, that we just stop having sex when we’re over 60.”

Williams also sees plenty of people in her age group enjoying late-life romances – including some friends of hers who she says are like “blooming lovebirds – can’t put each other down.” In her seventies, she had her own such romance. Her husband David was someone she had known for decades, through his wife, who also was a physiotherapist. “I came to this house when they first got married, 40 years ago. And then my husband died and eventually she died, so we got together."

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Unlike Grandma Williams many of the most popular influencers are style icons in some way and find their biggest impact on Instagram, where they, like younger influencers, also attract big brands who want to work with them. For instance, one of the most followed older Instagrammers in England is Suzi Grant, a nutritionist, former television presenter and author of books, including Alternative Ageing. When, in her sixties, she found herself bored, her two god-daughters both, separately, suggested she start blogging.

Her Alternative Ageing blog is a fusion of style-advice, health tips and general wisdom about living well. She has around 19,000 followers on Instagram, half of which are under the age of 35. Like Williams she beams positivity.

“I’m a very cup half full person,” she says. Though she’s all about the style – a vintage look incorporating 1960s hair bangs and endless headscarves – she also comes across as care-free and not too bothered about her wrinkles or saggy bits. “We’ve all got body dysmorphia, haven’t we? But, I’ve got over it.”

For her, the blog, is absolutely “not about fashion”. It’s about style. “I don’t do just fashion and I think that’s why it’s been successful. My blog is about how you feel. I’ve always said right from the beginning that I want women to look good but feel great. I think feeling great is far more important than the looking good. If you’re really healthy and you exercise and lead a really full happy life, then just dressing up a bit more can make the difference between walking out the door feeling invisible and walking out the door feeling really happy."

One of the things, she says, that worries her is how few posts there are on UK Instagram with the hashtag #over70 or #styleover70, by comparison with the equivalents in younger decades. “It’s really bad. I’ve got a huge job to do. It’s not a problem in America, there are masses of influencers over 70, even over 80. In fact, it’s very popular there and there are loads of bloggers in those categories as well as older people who have become famous because of the way they dress.”

Grant is referring to what is sometimes called Advanced Style, a movement celebrating style in older women that was partly triggered by the blogs of Ari Seth Cohen, and the book and documentary that followed. She cites Seth Cohen as her inspiration. “Watching the Advanced Style documentary started the whole thing for me. I now know him. He’s a personal friend of mine. But he thinks I look too young still for his blogs, which is really distressing. He took a picture and looked at the camera and said, ‘You’re still too young.’ He wants them with really grey hair. And also I don’t think I’m outrageous enough.”

Grant says that this is one of the happiest periods of her life. “I’m doing everything that I’ve always loved doing in a career without any of the stress.”

This emphasis on happiness is something she shares with Joyce Williams, who says she believes that for many the years over 70 are the happiest in their lives. This, she says, is backed up by statistics, by what she calls the graph of happiness which peaks at around 73 years old “and stays high”.

"I was quite suicidal at 45 years old,” she says. “Seriously suicidal. That was because I lost my husband at that point to cancer and we’d only been married two years. I wasn’t a really confident teenager or young woman either. But I’ve always had a curious mind.

"I think it surprised me how happy you are over 70. I didn’t realise what a good life it is until I got there and all my friends all said the same thing. People say, 'Are you worried about dying?' No, I’m happy to die. I’ve done everything I was going to do. I live day to day somehow. It’s more serene. It’s a bit like meditation in some ways, you get more serene, more adjusted to life.”