Retirement isn’t an option for the many well-known octogenarians living life to the full. Dave Kenny looks at the older people with a spring in their step, who believe age is no barrier to a full life.
LEONARD COHEN turned 80 this summer and is looking cooler than a naked Eskimo eating a 99 on an iceberg. He is making the most of his time left. Or as he puts it: he is “on the other side of the hill and it’s no time to tarry”.
Cohen went back on the road six years ago after discovering his former manager had swindled him. He is more popular than ever — and it’s not just a nostalgia thing. He’s doing his best work and his new album is being hailed as a masterpiece. His infamous melancholy is gone too, something he puts down to old age.
“I read somewhere that as you grow older certain brain cells die that are associated with anxiety,” he says.
Sophia Loren has just turned 80. Where Len is cool, Loren is hot. They are part of a growing troupe of oldies who are turning the octogenarian stereotype on its head. Bruce Forsyth recently bowed out of Strictly Come Dancing. He hasn’t quit because old age has caught up with him. He felt the show was stifling his ambitions. At 86.
Maggie Smith is acting her heart out in Downton Abbey. She was joined last season by fellow 80-year-old, Shirley MacLaine. Brigitte Bardot is still an icon in France having just hit her ninth decade. Chat show monarch Larry King, is still twanging his TV braces at 80.
Late Late legend, Gay Byrne, is going to require a stake through his heart to keep him off our TV screens. He hit 80 this year, one of of the 70,000 Irish people to do so.
“I can’t stress the intense gratitude I feel for getting this far,” he says. “I’m very thankful I am still in good health and have made it to 80. I don’t feel 42 any more but I certainly don’t feel as old as I am. I’m still full of life and energy.”
Then there’s Sarah ‘Paddy’ Jones from Britain’s Got Talent. The 80-year-old wowed audiences with her acrobatic dance routine earlier this year. ‘Paddy’ only took up dancing again 10 years ago after the death of her husband.
“I’m very active and young at heart,” says Paddy, who has seven grandchildren and a great-grandson. “I once overheard one of my son’s friends asking ‘Is your Mum ever going to grow up?’”
Author Fay Weldon, 83, is also enjoying being ‘grown up’. “There is a great relief in being ‘past it’, and being entitled to sit on the sidelines,” she says. “I am far happier than I was in my 60s. I was frightened then of old age. Now it’s here, I’m happy with it.
“When you’re in your 80s there are small triumphs, like getting the heels of your elastic stockings in the right place when you put them on. There are also major ones, like learning that loving people is more important than craving being loved, which plagues one so in youth.”
Film critic, Barry Norman, now 81, is happy with his age too.
“By 80 we are reconciled to our fate: we eat what we like, wear what is comfortable, make sure the bathroom mirror is of the flattering, not the truthful, sort and get on with our lives. Of course, old age is accompanied by aches and pains and lack of mobility. Old age ain’t no place for sissies, as Bette Davis said.
“Being old in the 21st century is our great good fortune. We have the internet — if we can overcome a reluctance to join the new computer world. It enables the shops to come to us, if we can’t get to the shops.”
So no need to buy a mobility vehicle then.
Age is no barrier to efficiency either (Douglas Hyde and Nelson Mandela both served presidential terms in their 80s). In New York, there are more than 9,000 people over 80 on the workforce — an increase from 20 years earlier. And 734 of them are 90 or older. They are the new old kids on the block — working and playing longer than previous generations.
Is there some magic formula for longevity? Or is it all down to healthy eating and discipline? For octogenarian, Jim Thomas, it’s a lot to do with attitude.
“I had to give up playing rugby three years ago. The younger lads were finding it too hard to keep up with me.”
He has a cut-diamond-twinkle in his eye. I don’t doubt he was too fast for the “young lads ” at Blackrock rugby club’s ‘tip’ sessions. He would be too fast for me and I’m 46. However, the young lads in question are in their 50s and 60s. And Jim Thomas is 85.
Not that you’d believe it to look at him. His shoulders are broad, his back is straight, his hair is thick and, although I don’t want to see it, I presume his octogenarian gut is more six-pack than beer keg. He played rugby with Tony O’Reilly back in the Stone Age, and is looking pretty damn good for his age. Or any age.
A retired estate agent, these days he is easygoing about his daily regimen. “I was always physically fit: I boxed and did gymnastics as a youngster and played rugby. I’m still active although I don’t go to the gym. I walk, but only when I have to. I don’t watch what I eat either.
“When I was young, 50 was considered to be old. Things have changed though, for the better. People look and act younger and there really isn’t an age barrier any more between middle-aged people and the elderly. I believe it’s all a state of mind. People constantly say to me: ‘Would you ever grow up, Jim’. I say ... ‘No!’” “I honestly never think about being in my 80s.”
Jim’s wife Elizabeth is an accomplished painter, and like Dorian Gray — and Jimbo — she definitely has a portrait in the attic. Liz looks 60, although she turned 80 this year.
She still works part-time as a doctor’s receptionist.
“Do I mind being 80? Well, I would rather be younger, but there’s nothing I can do about that.
“I look after myself health-wise and go to the dentist on a regular basis. I don’t feel old and I keep myself occupied. I worked for 30 years in the same job, right up until last year and still do holiday cover. I also have a good social life. I’m not out every night but I enjoy myself and keep in touch with my friends. Like Jim, when I was young, 60 was considered elderly. It’s not any more.”
According to a survey carried out by insurance site, PayingTooMuch.com, most 40-somethings believe old age doesn’t begin until you’re 80. Twenty percent of us say people can stay young until they reach 90. Most admitted that 30 years ago they would have considered 63 as ‘past it’.
Ninety-two per cent said old age no longer begins when you draw your pension. That’s just the start of a new phase of life. The over 40s are particularly youthful: 80% claimed they felt (on average) 11 years younger than their actual age. So cheer up: if 80 is the new 50, then 40 is the new 29.
What used to be called ‘normal old age’ is now being classified as ‘disease’
Dubliner Cianan O’Sullivan, 47, has been a consultant geriatrician for the past 12 years.
Has he seen a difference in the ‘quality’ of our ageing since leaving medical school? Do people appear to be younger at heart?
“That appears to be the case, although that’s just my opinion and not based on any hard medical science. On average, older people are healthier and living a bit longer.
Money and social class are big factors. If you’re well off, you have less chance of having a heart attack or stroke, or getting cancer.
“The elderly face new challenges though. Excessive medical treatment can pose a serious risk to their welfare. Older people now get a lot of diagnoses. What used to be called ‘normal old age’ is now being classified as ‘disease’.
“For example, kidney function deteriorates with age. In the past, this was considered to be normal. Now it’s a ‘disease’. Bones thin as you get older, but this is now called ‘osteoporosis’. I’m not saying this isn’t a real disease, but the threshold for what used to be called osteoporosis has now been lowered.
“Drugs are then described for these diseases. They don’t necessarily help and can cause side effects. That said, there is a balance to be reached between giving older people good medical care, or over-treating them.”
Can you slow down the ageing process by remaining mentally active?
“There are some studies that suggest, with early memory impairment, that you should ‘use it or lose it’. That is, by keeping your mind active you’re less likely to be diagnosed with dementia. There are no definite rules here though.
“The best way to stave off the effects of ageing is to do plenty of exercise. However, if some older people prefer to sit around doing nothing all day, that’s okay too. It’s all down to personal choice.”
Five ways to stay young
1. Don’t see old age as a bad thing
Your attitude to ageing can affect how long you live. Modern society has a bias towards youthfulness, but older people have a wealth of wisdom and experience. Focus on that. According to one recent study, people who think positively about ageing live 7.5 years longer than those who don’t.
2. Don’t dress like your granny
Don’t dress like Britney Spears, either. See how well Leonard Cohen and Sophia Loren look at 80. Ditch the greys and beiges and embrace the blues and yellows. The latter two colours are associated with happiness. If you look happy, you’ll feel happy, despite yourself.
3. Stay physically active
Don’t be tempted to buy a mobility aid until you need it. People can become dependent on their motor scooters and stop exercising. These aids also send out a signal that you have given up and now consider yourself an ‘old person’. If going to the shops is wearing you down, change your pace and walk more slowly.
4. Work to stay young
Studies have shown a correlation between early retirement and premature death. You’ve probably heard the statistic that for every extra year of early retirement, you lose two months of life expectancy. Having a job gives you something to focus on. Even if you don’t love it, you’re still learning new skills and keeping socially active. Consider a part-time job, post- retirement.
5. Set goals
Make to-do lists. Just because you’re retired is no excuse for giving up on life. Set targets, like taking up a new sport, hobby, post-retirement employment, or learning a language. Keep your brain sharp by doing crossword puzzles or Sudoku.
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