Brendan Hoban: Learning to make your peace with old age            

Western People 7th May 2024

Recently, the once-well-known BBC literary pundit, Joan Bakewell, was asked: ‘How old is old?’ Now in her 90s, she dismissed the question as ‘old hat’. Eventually, under some pressure she conceded: ‘Once you are over 90, you are considered to be old. Late middle age (now) goes on until you are 80.’

Age, in other words, is a matter of perspective. ‘You are as old as you feel’ is a common wisdom.

Some, like Joan Bakewell, resent being called ‘old’ at 90, others can feel old at 40. Others again, like the London Times columnist, Elaine Kingett (who is 74 and has a bus pass, hearing aids and a shopping trolley as credentials) believes age is a moveable feast. Asked how old she feels, on a good day she’d say 53, though first thing in the morning when she looks into the mirror she suspects she’s 165.

Yet, even though she looks like her mother, she doesn’t feel old. She feels middle-aged and how she lives and what she does reflects that confidence – apart from a few more prescribed medications and pauses to remember why she came into a room.

An Irish version of what I might call ‘the Bakewell/Kingett syndrome’ is noted this very day (May 7) when Lelia Doolan celebrates her 90th birthday by jumping out of an aeroplane flying at 10,000 feet above Edenderry, Co Offaly.

(For any youngsters who might be reading this column, or who don’t remember as far back as 1969, Doolan was one of the rising stars of RTE television but decided to walk away from a top job in protest against the direction the fledging national station was taking – notably its swerve away from public-service broadcasting through its reliance on funding from advertising. Her decision to walk away – in Shane Ross’s words in the Sunday Independent ‘penniless and forever’ – was a far cry from the more recent exit packages that had scandalously became the norm for our national broadcaster.)

The presenting reason for what to many will appear as a foolish whim is Doolan’s intention to use her birthday to raise funds for her favourite charity – the much admired Medecins Sans Frontiers  (Doctors Without Borders). Asked on a Cork local radio station if she was too old for jumping out of an aeroplane at 10,000 feet, she replied, ‘90 is no age these days’. 

These thoughts are inspired by new research that emanated from Humbolt University of Berlin and was published in the American Journal of Psychology and Ageing, which looked at data from more than 14,000 people born as early as 1911. Now it seems that while heretofore elderly or old people once regarded 71 as ‘old’ they now think 75 is more accurate as the dial continues to move upwards on the graph of life as optimism or delusion (depending on our perspectives) take hold.

So much of life is determined by personality type or, more simply, by where we are on the optimism/pessimism graph. And age is no exception. Fear which, in small measures makes great sense, can inflate incrementally with the years, as a number of positive medical constants do battle with a declining confidence and a burgeoning sense of catastrophe. One woman, on the eve of her 70th birthday, was terrified that she’d wake in the morning and everything in her wardrobe would be either beige and elasticated. (A friend reassuringly counselled, ‘You don’t wear that stuff now, so you won’t when you’re older.’)

But what can we make of this growing refusal to accept what the novelist Philip Roth tellingly described as ‘the inevitable encroachments of old age’. It’s both an industry and a conspiracy as it imagines we can stay old age by binning phrases like ‘That’s for young people’ or ‘At your age’ or ‘What used you do?’ Or attempting the impossible as with the present epidemic of the self-flagellating ‘Bucket List’ – a pointless exercise in trying to do what we are no longer able to do and threatening a heart attack or worse on ourselves in the process?

As our sense of ourselves begins to wobble and our decisions are not as judicious as they were, maybe we need to remind ourselves that delusion can reach pandemic proportions as old age creeps up on us. And that it’s more appropriate (and easier on ourselves and those around us) to decide to make our peace with old age. And rather than rejoining the gym, it may be more astute to graciously accept the offer of a seat on the bus or whatever common sense determines in our efforts to navigate the burdens that come our way.

In more critical and less amenable times, the late Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, once famously denounced the liberal-minded Lelia Doolan as ‘mad, bad and dangerous’. In a more tolerant age, no one would want to throw water on how a 90-year-old wishes to celebrate her birthday or compromise the work of Medecins Sans Frontiers but, like advertisers protecting themselves against any possible legal implications of the use of their products by admonishing prospective buyers ‘not to try this at home’, I would encourage a less dramatic encounter. But then I find it difficult to imagine being 90, and even more difficult to imagine jumping out of an aeroplane, 10,000 feet above Edenderry.

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One Comment

  1. Daithi O'Muirneachain says:

    “Learning to make peace with old age”, is an interesting and important matter for those getting on in years. This, in fact, is difficult for many senior citizens, due to assisted suicide and euthanasia likely to be made legal. The senior citizens should keep these possible developments in mind as elections approach and raise their concerns with candidates for public office.

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