Current Issue #488

Third Age: Buck Up Virginia

Third Age: Buck Up Virginia

Ever since I read No! I Don’t Need Reading Glasses, Virginia Ironside’s sprightly book about growing old defiantly, I’ve been waiting for her Krakatoa moment. I look for every book she has written, and always for her monthly column in The Oldie, the delicious old-age version of The Spectator, one of the most entertaining, politically incorrect magazines in the English speaking world since 1828.

Virginia and I agree on some things, disagree on others. For one thing, she is a bit contemptuous of help offered because of her age (now 72). Unlike me, she is rude about hospital food. She will never, never use a stick, whereas I would accept a drone if it would help make me move faster. She seems to reject what I think are courtesies if she thinks people are judging her as old or needy. Oh, but she is a laugh!

She makes growing old a bit of a jolly jape. She would have hated my self-pitying comments in a column I wrote called After the Fall. But things change as they do in old age. She has gone off like Krakatoa. After her own Fall.

She writes, “Ever since The Fall last month, I’ve experienced what the French call a coup de vieux. In other words I have been felled by the axe of old age. There I was, bouncing along at 72 (the new 52), imagining life would go on forever with me being reasonably fit, reasonably cheerful and reasonably busy when BAM! Falling over was like experiencing an earthquake. And the future looks distinctly black.

“Ever since, I’ve suffered not just the usual aches and pains but a series of panic attacks and constant fear…”

She then describes mini-post traumatic stress, fear of tackling a flight of steps… as she imagines what it would feel like to hurtle to the bottom…

The previously despised walking stick, renamed by her sensible friend, a “fun stick” is accepted. She gets one decorated with gilded flowers, but: “it doesn’t matter how fun the stick is, its stickiness shines through.”

She then describes her panic attacks, being afraid to answer the phone in case she bursts into tears. Visits to a psychiatrist, taking pills, considering and then rejecting new knees, and asking what the future brings.

Then (here comes Krakatoa in 1883 action): “I tell you what it brings. It brings increasing frailty, pain, vulnerability and out-of-touchness.” And more ghastly things.


Now here’s where my hypocrisy has to be admitted.

I sent her, in my mind of course, stern thoughts of pulling herself together. I told her she was lucky to live to a ripe age, to enjoy people’s admiration of her bravely decorated “fun stick”. And to buck up, for heaven’s sake, Virginia, columnist on whom her readers depend to give them a bit of a laugh at their age-related infirmities. Buck up. After all, she’s made money out of letting us think old age is, well, rather fun.

But here is what I actually did.

I scissored out her column neatly and took it to my GP, asking her to read it. So she’d know exactly how I felt. That week, anyway.


I have a new game I play when I find myself taking politics too seriously. The old game, called ‘spot the concession’, became too painful. Before that it was ‘better or worse off?’ I had to abandon that because “worse off” was the only answer every time. Being old is challenging enough without finding the game seems rigged.

My darkest moment was when the question, ‘Housing affordability? Do not pass Go,’ came up with a throw of the dice, and the plan was to (of course it’s only a game!), ‘con seniors out of their houses to free up land for struggling young people’. I was stuck on: ‘But seniors don’t want to leave’ and ‘Where do we put them, anyway?’ 20-somethings whom I begged to join in, refused to take it seriously and fell about laughing, saying ‘murder ‘em ha-ha-ha’. Bad for my blood pressure. Not helpful.

My new game to while away the happy pensioner hours when I’m not whooping with laughter at ‘grand names for rubbish policies’ requires you to look at front benchers on TV at Question Time or on 7.30; actually stare at them and imagine they have grown old, 80, 80-plus, maybe like you. It’s hard at first. They all look so rosy and sleek despite their heavy responsibilities and daily scrapping.

But then you watch them age; you see them crumbling, wizened and sad, and saying things like, “If only we’d known then what we know now; why didn’t someone tell us the ‘tsunami ‘ of aged people was coming?” “We could have asked some old people, I suppose.” And, “All that temptation before negative gearing went bad with the housing crash …”

Poor bastards.

But since I won’t be here to see them age, it’s great fun to imagine it now.

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