Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 23 August 2014

Queen's triumphant visit is a reminder of the wisdom of age

Queen Elizabeth waves goodbye to the people of Cork at the English Market in Cork City on her state visit to Ireland

Even the diehards and the cynics have to admit that the Queen pulled off a triumph during her historic visit to the Republic. Yes, of course, much of the credit for its spectacular success is due to faceless mandarins from both governments, with their planning, forethought and attention to detail.

Yet what really made it happen were the qualities, virtues and lightness of touch of Her Majesty. She added grace, dignity, assuredness and, yes, a certain humility in the face of our tortured history. Not bad for an 85-year-old woman.

Which, of course, is the point. Only a person of her advanced years, someone who knew her history, indeed was part of the woof and weft of that history, could have done justice to all the events. David Cameron? Tony Blair? Ed Miliband? They could have made exactly the same gestures, said exactly the same things, and it would have been mere PR flummery written on the wind.

Eight and half decades added heft and weight. This was the distillation of age - common sense, wisdom and power.

Yet how we ignore the sheer wisdom that comes with living a long time. In our obsession to be forever young we ghettoise and marginalise the elderly.

Last week was a shock not just because of the seismic change in Anglo-Irish relations, but because an elderly person held the stage for days on end. Can anybody recall the last time that happened?

Older people are written off yet the Queen's physical stamina was awesome, climbing flight after flight of stairs in Dublin Castle, barely pausing to catch her breath, then standing for 25 minutes to greet guests before making that speech - and all after a day of engagements. Those of us half her age would be exhausted by such a schedule. What a boost for pensioners everywhere to see someone their age proving they're not beaten yet.

In our culture, age is banished, forbidden, the last great taboo. Cameron, Miliband, Clegg are all self-consciously "young" leaders, like Obama and Palin in the US. They are "vigorous" and "in touch" with modern society - and not one has any real life experience. It's hard to imagine the lived in features of Winston Churchill or even Sunny Jim Callaghan becoming PM now. The media would never allow it.

Still, while the public may show respect for the Queen, what about how we treat our own parents, grandparents, the old woman across the street? Not always that great, is it? Our default position seems to be to treat the elderly as an opportunity for 'Carry On' toilet humour. They are doddery old fools, all false teeth, bath chairs and forgetfulness, bombarded by ads on daytime TV for funeral plans.

Where is the respect for the elderly shown elsewhere in Europe where the grandpere and grandmere are the respected heads of the family? Here, grandparents are more often treated as a source of embarrassment, lucky to get a dutiful weekly visit, if they haven't already been scuttled off a residential home.

We don't tend to view them as a treasurehouse of experience. Instead of being a boon, they're a burden. Whenever the elderly are mentioned in the media, it's as a drain on the NHS and the welfare state. They're always a problem.

Yet the best advice I've ever received has been from people in their seventies. An insurmountable crisis to you is a mere blip to someone who has lived through their own trauma, upheaval and disappointment. They bring perspective, backbone and the assurance that there's very little that isn't survivable.

And, of course, the grim irony is that we are an ageing society. But we're in collective denial. Pop stars turn 70, like Bob Dylan today, but somehow that doesn't count. They must remain officially young, striking the same poses as 40 years ago.

The Queen showed us there is much to be learned from our elders. Growing old should be celebrated, not treated as the greatest crime someone could commit.

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