Belfast Telegraph

Ageing may be inevitable, but Joan's dead right: we shouldn't go gently into that good night

Growing old disgracefully: Dame Joan Collins
Growing old disgracefully: Dame Joan Collins
Dame Judi Dench

By Mary Kenny

Age is just a number," Dame Joan Collins said on her 85th birthday recently. "It's totally irrelevant unless you're a bottle of wine. You are what you think you are. I look and feel several decades younger."

She then requested "an emergency Grey Goose vodka with ice" to take the edge off her hangover.

Give the lady a round of applause. I'm going to pin up her advice over my desk.

It was Maeve Binchy who coined the phrase 'the organ recital'. This describes a conversation when two oldies meet, as they go through the list of complaints and afflictions they're experiencing, a narrative of hospital appointments and doctors' waiting rooms or a boastful competition about the number of pills that have to be swallowed each day (and their numerous side-effects).

Whatever chirpy view Joanie takes, the evidence of crumbling and decay is all around once you get to the senior years. I have various friends and colleagues currently combating macular degeneration (partly being held at bay by an injection right into the eye every month), a complicated version of lymphoma, the onset of Alzheimer's, various cancers, agonising arthritis of the spinal cord, mini (and maxi) strokes, chronic pulmonary conditions and late-onset diabetes, besides all the usual procedures with cataracts, hearing aids and endless dental care.

Dentists do a great job, but the cost can be painful. I bit into a crunchy piece of bread the other week and chipped off a piece of my back molar. "The good news is we can save this tooth," said the dental surgeon. The bad news is the bill will be £685, for one gnasher. Because old teeth are in such a fragile state anyway. Pay up or become a toothless crone.

The notion that age is irrelevant can be hard to sustain in the face of the accumulating evidence that it's probably the most relevant fact of our existence. Even leaving aside the health angle, the recent report Positive Ageing in Age-Friendly Cities and Counties highlighted many of the obstacles and vexations that older people encounter: transport problems, shortages of public toilets, difficulties maintaining their homes, difficulties with socialising and the negative attitudes of younger generations, who often see the old as frail, a nuisance, and hospital 'bed blockers'.

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And yet, despite all the evidence of crumbling and decay, I think we should try to strive for the Collins doctrine and act as though age is "just a number".

We should, I think, resolve to do as much as we can for as long as we can.

We should wear bright colours - never beige or grey, which make old people fade into invisibility. We should not place too much emphasis on comfort - the comfort zone can be a trap. Don't always sit in a cosy chair; sometimes sit in an uncomfortable one. Do what's difficult, not what's easy.

Keeping up with technology is fine in moderation, but it's now being suggested that too much reliance on technology is making people stupid. Older people had to use their brains by finding out stuff for themselves - not just by asking Alexa, the sinister robot which answers all questions. So don't use GPS to guide you to every destination when you drive: figure it out on print maps (even if I do get interestingly lost on unknown routes).

Everyone knows the usual advice about diet. But I have to give myself other advice too: beware the calcification of ideas and the hardness of heart that sometimes comes with age. You've been there, you've done it, what are they making a fuss about?

TS Eliot spoke of "the conscious impotence of rage / at human folly" as "body and soul begin to fall asunder". But human beings often have to go through every learning process for themselves, to come to the same rueful conclusions. "Time will say nothing but I told you so," wrote WH Auden, in a similar reflection.

There is certainly a battle to be fought against negative attitudes to the old (and we have all entertained them, when younger), and what is sometimes more irritating, patronising attitudes.

Another theatrical dame, the superb Judi Dench, aged 83, recounted an outrageous example recently.

Last year, she was "bitten on the bum" by a hornet, and when a young paramedic came to attend her, he asked, "What's our name?" and "Do we have a carer?" At this, she blew her top. She told him to "f*** off", adding that she'd just done eight weeks of Shakespeare in a London theatre. It was that patronising "we" that got her dander up.

Dame Judi did admit that there is a delicate balance between the need, sometimes, for assistance - stairs are a hazard, and stairs without a bannister a pitfall - and not being treated like an idiot, especially with an added babyish tone of voice ("Can you manage, dearie?").

We can't all be legendary theatrical dames doing battle against the years, yet we all need role models, to uplift and show the way. When David Dimbleby announced recently that he was stepping down from presenting the BBC's political programme Question Time as he hits 80, he added that it was to go back to being a reporter. To start a new phase of your career at 80 - just the ticket!

Belfast Telegraph


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