Third Age: The Final Years

Skipping the ending

I have now entered the chapter that I try to skip in biographies. A recent birthday was not a milestone but presaged one. People say, “Ooooh, next year is the big one”. I haven’t actually been rude to anyone who said that yet, but I am shocked at the licence my old age seems to give people to, well, put me in a box. A box labelled in biographies as The Final Years. I much prefer autobiographies for that reason. For the obvious reason. Th ough not all biographies end in death, of course. The biography of much loved artist Margaret Olley, by Meg Stewart, that I am reading at the moment was published six years before her death. The book ends with a picture of the wonderful old girl galumphing around the Pyramids in Egypt using one of those cage-like walkers, and then back home, working and playing as usual: “Margaret still socialises at a staggering pace. She’s out most evenings…” is is in a not-too- final chapter called Celebrating Life and I was tickled pink that it ended on that note. Well done, Meg Stewart. I won’t be reading any Final Years addendum. Political biographies often end in political demise, which politicians might feel is the worst kind of death. I am comfortable about reading them. But I prefer Letters. If you keep your interest in famous lives to autobiographies and letters you will often be struck by how little the tone changes as the years advance. Although the youngest of the fabulous Mitford girls, Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire (who died a year ago), and her letter writing companion, war hero and person of letters, Patrick Leigh Fermor, got old and creaky, they kept their correspondence fizzing into their later years. (She wrote fizzy letters to her sisters and all her famous friends. The Telegraph, London, called her the last lady of letters. I wouldn’t bet on that, though). I would love to add some fizzy quotes. I have the letters and the Duchess’s last autobiographical work on my Kindle and I have lost the charger cord and am told it is not easily replaced because my Kindle is “too old”. It is embarrassing for someone like me who wishes all old people would embrace e-books. It is quite a confession to make. I suppose the equivalent disaster, involving a hard copy – ‘real’ – book would be its being rendered illegible by spilt red wine. Or is just unavailable because you have lent it to someone whose name you can’t remember. Letters between old people tend to be upbeat. My Canberra friend and I post cat cards to each other several times a week. These cards are chronicles of our little lives (though she is more adventurous and travel-prone than I). We have unspoken limits to mentions of illness and disabilities which we usually observe. We have moans, of course we do, but they tend to be more about our fears that changes at Australia Post will upset out regime. The unkindest person would not see our letters as chronicles of decline. We do rage, though. Most enjoyable. The Final Years chapters, when I do read them, often contradict the notion that people become more conservative with age. As a biographer of Lenin wrote, “True priorities are revealed in the final throes of a person’s life.” I am not keen on ‘throes’, but I do believe that in old age people often drop restraints of their earlier lives and have a go. They see that old ways of thinking got us into this ‘mess’ – whatever mess it happens to be at the time. We see how much our world has changed and realise that being conservative is no answer to ever new problems. Of course, I see this as enlightenment, but others might call it unfortunate. Writing for Huffington Post, New York entrepreneur Jack Hidary is preoccupied with the Final Years of a different kind. He is concerned with “the final five years” ahead of us before everyone on earth is connected via the Net. He asks, “How will governments fare then their people can instantly connect to the world?” It is fair to say that the old models will not do. Our present government, unfortunately, has been unable to face up to change, even the micro-change of marriage equality, preferring to handball it back to the people rather than make decisions as it is elected to do. Old people, with little time to waste, find that pathetic. As for climate change, shillyshallying earns only contempt from us. We were part of the problem and now we want to see a solution before we push o ff. Until the death by a thousand memes su ffered by former Speaker Bronwyn Bishop last month, people of my age group might have thought her a gutsy dame: nearly 73, with a top job and a top salary. Now she has missed her chance of being a role model to Third Agers. I know that she never wanted to be a role model of any kind, but I still find it sad.

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