The Vexations and Pleasures of Old Age

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“I’m so glad I’m not young any more,” sang Maurice Chevalier in Gigi, though, as I recall the movie, his eyes sparkled with joie de vivre as he delivered the line. A survey of 2000 people commissioned by the healthcare group Benenden suggests that a lot of us think living beyond eighty-three would be a bonus, though a surprising number believe that they will do well to reach seventy. One wonders of course how old these respondents were. Seventy is a long way off when you’re twenty, not so far when you’re in your sixties.

One thing is clear. Whatever may truthfully be said about the miseries of old age, and about the quality of care for the old and the anxieties this may cause, old people are generally younger than they were a generation or two ago. Grandparents and great-aunts and great-uncles mostly, as I remember, settled for being old, and accepted the restrictions of old age, when they were younger than I am now. In some cases that old age lasted a very long time; one of my grandmothers survived to be ninety-nine, and remained in possession of her faculties pretty well right to the end.

How long you live doubtless depends often on how you have lived, but there is no justice in this. Being health-conscious doesn’t necessarily prolong your life, and being careless of your health doesn’t mean you die earlier. The novelist Compton Mackenzie took little exercise, smoked heavily – he wrote a book called Sublime Tobacco – and wasn’t averse to a glass of whisky; he lived to be eighty-nine. The last volume of his autobiography was published the year before he died.

Going on working is surely one way to live happily into old age. Artists of all sorts are lucky; they practise a trade with no retiring age. Many of course mismanage their lives and die young, often because of drink or drugs. But if they escape such a fate, their old age can be rewarding, partly because it’s not necessarily much different from what went before. V S Pritchett once told me that he grumbled every morning as he climbed the stairs to his study, but was happy as a lark as soon as he settled at his work-desk.

Many in other walks of life aren’t so fortunate, and many indeed greet retirement from the daily grind with pleasure. But I would guess that most who make a success of retirement do so because they retain other interests or find new ones. I have known old ladies who were kept going happily into their nineties by their love of gossip. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it can help to prolong human life. My father-in-law declared that he was determined to live till his grandchildren were all through university and settled in their course. This was a good ambition and he fulfilled it.

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