A woman of 50, described as a “socialite” could not bear the thought of growing old, of losing her looks and being able to continue her hedonistic lifestyle. After a suicide attempt that all but destroyed her kidneys, she fought a court case to be allowed to refuse treatment. Medics were desperate to save her life: but she would have none of it, so afraid was she of growing old.
The judge ruled that she wasn’t mad, was in full possession of her faculties, and was entitled to refuse that treatment. She died.
I guess my first reaction was similar to that of many people: what a crazy state of mind. Then, on reflection, I thought it was a tragic one.
Growing old? I confess there was a time when I thought 50 impossibly ancient. I was 14 when my Dad celebrated his 50th birthday: parents are inevitably old to teenagers and by definition don’t understand anything, are hopelessly out of touch, generally maintaining impossible expectations with regard to behaviour.
I’m currently precisely the age my father was when I married: I realise now that he was in his prime back then, as I am.
It’s all a matter of perception. By chance I heard on the radio last week a man who had always wanted children but never found the right partner. By the time he was 40, he said, he was too late. He would be in his mid-50s by the time a child of his was a teenager, so he couldn’t play football with him or her. He would be past it.
That struck me as an odd view. Kids don’t play football with their dad so that he can be a superstar and outplay them. Indeed, half the joy for a child is putting a goal past dad, even when he feigns age or infirmity in order to let a toddler score. But that’s easy for me to say, perhaps: I have had the joy of kids (and I was rubbish at playing football with them).
Nowadays I’m overweight and frequently grumpy. But I enjoy good health, and life. Mrs Trafford and I puff around the block for a run a few times a week, except when the weather’s unbearable. More accurately, I puff: she barely breaks into a sweat.
Another benefit in growing older lies in enjoying the wisdom (I wouldn’t normally use that term) that experience brings. I am less hasty, and do fewer things that I regret afterwards. If I’ve slowed down, it’s as much because I want to reflect as because physical age slows me. I think I’m enjoying life more than I’ve ever done: and I intend to continue on that upward curve for a long time yet.
All these thoughts come together right now because on Saturday we fly down to Somerset to celebrate Dad’s 95th birthday. We lost Mum last year at the age of 92, but Dad remains well and cheerful. He lives in an Abbeyfield home and has two meals a day prepared for him. He’s safe, cared for and independent.
He’s wiser than ever, too. We had a great trip to the WW1 Battlefields in August, Dad pacing himself carefully and enjoying three long days looking around the battlefields of 1915-16, where his father served.
We stayed in a charming hotel in Arras that made a fuss of us, and particularly him: the only drawback was there was no lift, so Dad had to mount the stairs to his room on the first floor. As my wife took his arm one day, half-way up she warned, “Don’t forget to breathe!”
He considered for a moment then replied, “That’s a good point. You know, old people do forget to breathe. And sometimes they don’t remember until it’s too late”.
Wisdom with humour: if that’s what truly comes with age, bring it on.