“Why not write something about growing old,” she suggested, shortly after my birthday.
“But I don’t know anything about that.” Then I thought I must know something about it as most people, even if not me, consider me old. Oldies are not that special these days, about 25% of us are 65 or older and 3% are 85 or older.
The first clue I got about age was in a café in California. Coffee in hand, I approached the till. “It’s free for oldies before 10 on Thursdays,” said a young girl at the counter. To her, anyone over 40 would look ancient.
How should one grow old?
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Dylan Thomas may want us to rage and the passage of time is inevitable; we must make the best of it, the alternative is not attractive. I would like to grow old like Lewis Carol’s Father William rather than the slippered pantaloon of Shakespeare. These days one need not be ‘sans eyes, sans teeth...’ though the NHS is not much help here, you have to pay for your own dental implants and you cannot have your cataracts done until you are nearly blind. I, like Roger McGough, would like to die a young man’s death. Not, like he, chopped up by a jealous lover, but while flying one sunny day over the Hampshire countryside.
Some say you should have no regrets in old age, but I have regrets aplenty. There has not been, will not be, enough time. I regret the things I have not done, not the things I have done. John Betjeman was being interviewed on a highbrow BBC3 program about his poetry. Had he any regrets? he was asked apropos publishing or altering a poem. Yes, he said, I did not have enough sex. Do any of us? A long radio silence followed his reply.
Getting old seems to happen overnight in the Basque country. Men, aged anything over 50, begin to wear a black beret or txapela with a little stalk on the top and they purchase a makila or walking stick. They are now erretiratu or retired even if they have not worked for years. Now they can sit in bars, nothing new about that, but one is expected to buy them a drink and offer a cigarette. Attendance at the local football match is free and their wives are supposed to be extra attentive to their needs. Such men merge slowly into the background and life carries on around them. They are less and less noticed. When you look for one, there is a gravestone.
Maybe it is time to prepare an epitaph:-
I told you I was ill
Spike Milligan (in Gaelic on his headstone)
When I am dead
Let it be said
His sins were scarlet
But his books were read.
Or, in the Idaho Penitentiary
Here lies Lester Moore
Four slugs from a 44
I’m happy to let others sort out my epitaph.
Don’t Worry – Be Happy
One does not have to worry about those newspaper articles saying that doctors have discovered that if you drink (add the name of a drink, red, white, coffee, it changes every week) you will die young or if you eat (add the name of a food), you will have a heart attack. Not worrying about these matters is a relief. It is not necessary to eat some newly discovered, tasteless, gritty Amazon jungle seeds to live to be 70. You can smirk at those life prediction questionnaires that, when filled in, predict your death 5 years ago. I feel some sympathy for those red-faced, sweaty joggers who think they are prolonging their lives by engaging in masochism. What is the point of expending energy unless there is an end product, a neatly mowed lawn, a pile of wood chopped for winter fires or a newly laid patio?
How old are we really? If you have a birth certificate there is no getting away from your chronological age, but what about mental age, biological age and psychological age. The song says a woman is as old as she feels but a man is as old as the woman he feels.
You can adopt an attitude of mind and a behaviour to appear older than you are. When you sit or stand, make an ‘errgh’ sound, when you bend over, pass wind and blame the dog, bore your friends with tales of those embuggerances of old age like constipation, piles, prostates, in growing toenails, creaking joints and failing vision. Ignore your nasal hair and bushy eyebrows, there is no need to be too careful when you shave, wear shabby, worn and not too clean clothes because they have enough wear in them to ‘see you out’.
But you are in a new class of individual, grouped together with the Pregnant, Nursing Mums and the Disabled when it comes to public spaces.
Alternatively, take on a new life, you do not have to wear purple or rattle railings with a stick. Learn something new like dancing, music appreciation, carpentry. Get out locally and explore your environment more thoroughly than before, it may surprise you to discover what is close by. U3A, University of the third age, is great for meeting people and learning new things. Organise your own coffee mornings, book clubs, discussion groups or whatever you fancy. Don’t expect them to go on for ever, you must keep ringing the changes.
Duties of the Old
There is a new duty we must all take on; we must encourage the young and do our best to protect them. We must protest when we see their futures being damaged, when tycoons steal, embezzle, neglect or erode pension funds when governments discourage preparation for old age. We must help where we can, whether it be the Bank of Mum and Dad or just timely advice.
I read recently in a learned journal ‘The concept of ageism needs to be redefined to mirror practical experiences of chronological, social, biological and psychological points of ageing…’ Is that turgid or what? It means do not be an ageist bigot for, with a bit of luck, you too, will be old one day.
Finally, you have crystal clear memories of 70 or more years ago, cherish them, pass some on to your grandchildren but be careful not to bore them with tales of, ‘When I was a lad there was no TV’. They might retort ‘who would want TV when beer was only 5p a pint?’