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Sunday 3 October 2010

Keep on keeping on when the years roll past

Even if you're retired, the world is still full of jobs to do, people to see and hobbies to take up, says Ruth Dudley Edwards

IT didn't take Positive Ageing Week and exhortations from President Mary McAleese to get me brooding about oldies, for I'd been set off by The Young Ones, a recent BBC reality TV programme that set out to rejuvenate a clutch of once-famous septuagenarians and octogenarians.

And then there was the papal visit to Britain, which began with an 89-year-old (Prince Philip), greeting an 83-year-old (Pope Benedict XVI) and later introducing him to his 84-year-old wife (Queen Elizabeth). Margaret Thatcher was present for the pope's speech in Westminster Hall. She is 84 and has Alzheimer's, which is why John Major held her hand throughout the proceedings, but she looked splendid, if rather vacant.

The premise of The Young Ones was that, if forced to think of when they were in their prime, old people could shed the years. Much money had been spent on decorating a house in hideous Seventies-style and participants were required to talk as if they were in 1975. But what really invigorated them was having to look after themselves and being in stimulating company.

Derek Jameson, 80, a once-feared tabloid editor, couldn't get his suitcase up the stairs or put on his own socks until he had to; the actress Liz Smith, 88, couldn't walk without two sticks until she had to carry her own coffee-cup; Dickie Bird, 77, famous and convivial cricket-umpire, recovered the social confidence he had lost after a stroke because he had to talk to the five people he was stuck with; Kenneth Kendall, 86, the one-time BBC newscaster and presenter, was miserable without dogs but convinced he was too infirm to look after them, yet presented with two to exercise and feed he succeeded; Lionel Blair, 78 but lying about it, moved from denial to tap-dancing; and Sylvia Syms, 76, once a great beauty but now fat and almost immobile, recovered her zest and on her last day ran out of the house to embrace her daughter.

The most instructive moment was halfway through when a small army of carers arrived: Jameson was one inhabitant who instantly regressed to dependency and handed them his socks; Syms stood on the stairs shouting at them to keep away from her. The carers were removed after a few hours, and by the end of the week, all six were shown to have made extraordinary physical, mental and emotional progress.

I was haunted by the memory of my grandmother O'Sullivan, who happily looked after her house and her chickens until, after a fall, her well-meaning daughters decided she was no longer fit to live alone. Transported from rural Cork to Dublin, where she was fed and looked after and had nothing to do, she was miserable and lost her wits within a few months.

Queens, popes and dictators (Robert Mugabe is still vigorously ruining his country at the age of 86) just keep going, which is what everyone should do. Even if you've retired, the world is full of jobs to do and people to enjoy and hobbies to take up and places to visit. Thatcher may be vague about whom she's socialising with, but attending events gives her a sense of purpose and she knows how she and everyone else should behave. "No, dear," she said to me recently at a small dinner party when someone produced a camera, "never be photographed with a glass in your hand. Put it over there."

The last time I met Garret FitzGerald, 84, who whizzes around like a woolly haired dervish, was in a London club where he was entertaining three young women to dinner. "They're friends of my granddaughters and friends of mine," he explained after they had left and he then joined me and my companions for a political argument until midnight.

I even admit that in my 60s I've started going to the gym and am fitter now than I was at 50. I've buried enough younger friends to know I'm lucky to be alive.

Every generation is living longer than the one before, we have no excuse these days to be bored and equally we should try to avoid being a burden. The recipe is simple: don't think about age, just keep going. And keep putting on your own socks.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards