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Theresa Du Toit Image Credit: Sankha Kar/Gulf News

Dubai: Few know how to live life full throttle. Especially when there are setbacks and forces of circumstance take over. From relationship issues and financial troubles to health concerns and the death of loved ones, the challenges that people deal with as they journey along are many. Add to this the crippling “age factor” and a slowdown, it is widely believed, is only natural.

But in a refreshing take, three women, well past their 50s, share their most difficult life experiences and talk of how they’ve defied the odds to embrace life to the fullest. Filled with zest and raring to go, they hope their stories can light a spark and inspire a positive change in others too.

For them, age is just a number and adversity an opportunity.

Gulf News brings you their triumphs and tribulations:

Theresa Du Toit

65-year-old South African dreams of being a bride again

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Dubai-based South African expat Theresa Du Toit is 65 years old and she is on the lookout for a third husband. But before you jump to any conclusions, hear her out.

“I love the idea of marriage and I’ve been in two phenomenal marriages,” says Theresa, who following her heart even became a wedding celebrant.

So why would she be looking for a man again?

“Because I am veteran when it comes to losing husbands,” says the two-time widow, who has emerged from the trauma of bereavement after long, hard battles.

“I met my first husband in university back in Pretoria and we were happily married for 30 years. We had three kids and we couldn’t have asked for more. But he was diagnosed with tongue cancer and he passed away in August 2004. I was just devastated.”

Theresa Du Toit
I am a veteran when it comes to losing husbands ... But I love the idea of marriage and I’ve been in two phenomenal marriages ... life is a celebration and no matter what, we must get restored, says Theresa Du Toit. Image Credit: Supplied

She said it was only her faith in the Almighty that kept me going. “Somewhere along the line, I decided I would cherish the good memories we had built together and learnt how to heal my heart.”

With time, the positive thinking helped restore her. She said eight years later, she met another “wonderful” man in Dubai whom she wanted to marry.

“But he had had two failed marriages and was not ready. Six weeks into the friendship though, he proposed to me under the stars in the Empty Quarter and I accepted.”

Fifty-eight then, Theresa said she spent the next two years in sheer bliss. “I had three kids from my first marriage and he had two from his earlier marriage. The five siblings became very close and we were one big happy family.”

But as luck would have it, her second husband died of a massive heart attack on a quad bike trip into the desert in May 2015.

Theresa remembers wondering why this was happening to her all over again. “My heart shattered into a million pieces. As I dealt with the pain, I also remembered what my husband had told me: that God forbid, if he was gone before I did, I should mourn him for as long or as short as it took, but I should move on.”

Life is a celebration and no matter what happens to us, we must get restored,” says Theresa, pointing to how she discovered her passion for conducting wedding ceremonies after her loss.

“I also do public speaking and grief counselling because I firmly believe life is meant to be explored, lived to the fullest and cherished.”

Teresa’s tips to those bereaved:

1. Allow yourself time to grieve — not necessarily by keeping busy as that will only postpone your grief and lead to depression.

2. But don’t park in the valley of grief, it will rob you of your life.

3. Shift the focus from the pain of your loss to the gain of those who have left you — an ailing person’s suffering for instance would have come to an end when he or she passes away.

4. Don’t try to keep a brave face — be open and frank about your emotions.

5. This too will pass — know that your loved ones would want you to heal and celebrate life.

Fatema Al Qassab, Bahraini

At 56, this Bahraini expat who has fought cancer, not once,but twice, says her smile is her logo

Fatema Al Qassab
Fatema Al Qassab at her house in Karama, Dubai. Image Credit: Atiq Ur Rehman/Gulf News

Fatema Al Qassab loves life. Exuding a rare charisma, her positive vibes instantly rub off on those around her.

A Bahraini national who works as an administrator at a training academy in Dubai, she is ever smiling and cheerful and takes great pride in her personality, which her friends say not only belies her age, but also the tough journey she has endured.

There’s no telling she is 56 years old, with two grown up sons, aged 25 and 21. And it’s harder still to believe she has been diagnosed with cancer, not once but twice over — and has lost her husband to the same malaise.

Fatema just completed her 25th session of radiation to arrest the cancer in her right breast last fortnight, but she would rather talk of how she lived cancer-free for 20 years since she was first diagnosed with the disease in her left breast.

The earlier diagnosis couldn’t have come at a worse time. As Fatema recalled, “This was in 1998 when I was carrying my second baby and was due to deliver the same day. That’s when doctors found a lump in my left breast, which turned out to be malignant. I was told the cancer had reached Stage 3.”

But despite the devastating news, Fatema managed a normal delivery. “I just forgot my sadness and sickness when I held my baby,” she said.

Forced to leave the one-week old infant in the care of her sister, she shuttled between Dubai, Bahrain and London for her treatment, including chemotherapy, surgery, radiation and reconstruction.

The pain of it all notwithstanding, Fatema said she kept her spirits up and was very grateful for the support of her family, especially her husband. “He was my angel,” she said, adding how he solidly stood by her as she bounced back from the brink.

“I became more positive than I ever was as I was determined to eat right, exercise well and stay fit. But in 2009, my husband was diagnosed with prostate cancer and he left us a year later. This was the most difficult time of my life. But I knew I had to gather my courage to get on with my life. There was nothing more that he would have liked me to do.”

As the eldest of nine siblings, she said she had learnt to shoulder responsibility at a very young age. “My mother married early and we had only a 13-year gap between us. By the time I turned 12, I was taking on a lot of duties at home and was looked upon as the second mum by my siblings.”

But she said the strength she gained in those early years is what has held her in good stead. “The biggest gift and joy we can give our children is to raise them as strong individuals and I am proud that my two boys are as strong, if not stronger, than me.”

Fatema said much of her positivity comes from her passion to learn new things. “We were taught English as a second language in school but I was able to get a command over it only through self-schooling much later. I am now learning Salsa and will soon enrol myself into learning new languages.”

She said age is just a number. “I am very happy where I am and the way my life has turned out. My smile is my logo,” she added.

Sandi Saksena, Indian

Daredevil Indian expat, 67, swears by the ‘biology of belief’

Sandi Saksena

The Zipline at Jebel Jais in Ras Al Khaimah may be the world’s longest, but Indian expat Sandi Saksena wished it had been longer as she hurtled down its length at 150km an hour last month.

Nothing unusual about that except that this daredevil is just 67 years old. As she prepares to go on a hike to Mount Kailash in India in August, she says she has never felt fitter in her life.

“Age is all about attitude. The right belief and intent can make the impossible possible.”

That is no empty boast considering Sandi was born with just one kidney and a unicorn uterus, a rare condition where a woman has only one side of her uterus and its associated fallopian tube and ovary, instead of two.

“But look at me, I never worry about it. I lead a fulfilling life and have had two wonderful children, now aged 44 and 36,” she says.

Sandi feels strongly about the stereotypes surrounding illness and age.

Sandi Saksena
Age is about attitude. The right belief and intent can make the impossible possible ... I was born with one kidney and a unicorn uterus. But I never worry about it and lead a fulfilling life, says Sandi Saksena. Image Credit: Supplied

“Take some of the websites that offer health advice for women 50-plus. From accumulation of fat in the abdomen and loss of elasticity on the skin to lack of energy and brittle bones, that’s all they talk about. You would think a woman would crumble because of osteoporosis that is slowly but surely setting in.”

But Sandi, who has defied the odds, says she drew inspiration from two books by the developmental biologist Bruce Lipton: Biology of Belief and The Honeymoon Effect.

“While the first shows that all the cells of your body are affected by your thoughts with scientific proof, the second demonstrates that a state of bliss, passion, energy and good health can result from a huge love. So it is important to stay positive and be loving — the rest will just fall in place.”

But isn’t that easier said than done?

“No,” says Sandi, who fell on hard times at one stage of her life, but emerged from it a stronger person. A long-time housewife, she began to work at the age of 45 when her family was in a financial crisis and ever since, has become a role model for those who are fighting layoffs, loans and lethargy.

“The first step is to drop the pretence, downsize and restructure your goals. And of course, never to lose hope,” she says, recalling how she landed that first job of an insurance agent after several rejections.

But there has been no looking back since. Not only does she continue with the same organisation that has seen many changes, she is now a financial adviser and empowerment officer who conducts workshops for those whose finances are in a mess.

She says her never-say-die attitude has turned her life into an adventure. “Especially now, with all the wealth of experience that I have accumulated. My children are grown up and I am my own person – so I am free to do new things.”

With the high-altitude pilgrimage at Mt. Kailash coming up, she says she is training to get her cardio levels up. “I jog 10 km an hour with 3kg on my back three times a week. I use a stair machine and cover up to 1,000 stairs non-stop in 10 minutes. Essentially, I do what my mind wills me to do. It’s as simple as that.”

How to stay young and overcome negative thinking

Aamnah Hussain

Aamnah Hussain, Clinical Psychologist at the German Neuroscience Center, provides much-needed answers for some pressing questions:

Why do people start ageing earlier than they should?

People start ageing earlier when they experience a lot of stress that is not managed well, because stress impacts every aspect of our well-being. One may also feel/seem older when one begins to restrict one’s engagement with the world, with people and activities, or when one feels overburdened and unable to take care of self. Some people age earlier because they have limiting beliefs about older age.

Why is it so hard for people to think positive?

As humans we have certain instincts and intellectual abilities that have ensured our survival as a species, but they can have negative consequences for us and don’t necessarily make us very happy. One of these is our wonderful ability to think. To form mental images, hold them in our memory, project them in the future. It surely helps us plan and organize, problem solve and achieve goals but we dont always have control over our thinking and it can often have a negativity bias. Evolutionarily speaking, it is important for the brain to remember negative events and to keep scanning the future for any signs of trouble, to avoid pain and problems and to keep us protected. Thus many of us often find ourselves ruminating about the past or worrying and stressing about different scenarios in the future. If there have been traumas in our past, very painful events, then this can increase our tendency to think more negatively. The more we exercise these circuits of the brain, the stronger they get, the more persistent the negative thinking.

How can this be reversed?

Talking about and expressing yourself during difficult times can help you process your thoughts and feelings and gain new perspective and being socially connected and having strong support networks are very helpful. Bringing awareness to your negative thinking, evaluating it and replacing it with more positive self talk is also very beneficial. Practice staying in the moment rather than jumping to the future or the past, and also practice being in touch with your body’s experience rather than always being in your head, can also help reduce negativity. Mindfulness meditation is a particular evidence based practice that is easy to use and can help you develop a different relationship with your thoughts and emotions, such that they do not take control of you anymore.

How can you feel young as you grow older?

Enjoy what you already have, develop the capacity for gratitude for the small wonders of life, practice viewing each moment as if it is the first time you are witnessing such an experience. Accept and celebrate your own self and maintain a healthy support system. Embrace change and novelty, because when we encounter new things, situations or challenges, our brain grows and develops. Respect and show compassion to your mind and your body, respect your limitations and draw good boundaries in relationships. Take out time to practice positivity, laughter, a break from the chatter of the mind and strengthen those circuits of the brain.