Back in 2002, when they produced their report that led to the appointment of the Older People’s Commissioner for Wales, the Welsh Government’s Advisory Group on a Strategy for Older People gave it the title When I’m Sixty-four. That, of course, is the name of one of the Beatles’ most famous lyrics. In choosing it the Advisory group revealed that their formative years were spent during the 1960s. The lyrics were published in 1967, part of perhaps the Beatles’ most successful album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band:
When I get old and losing my hair
When I’m sixty-four
Will you still be sending me a valentine?
Birthday greetings, bottle of wine …
More than 40 years later these words reveal an intriguing view of ageing from the perspective of people who were in their twenties in the 1960s. And I have to confess, I am among them. In fact, I turned 64 yesterday. Back in the sixties we regarded 64 to be ‘getting old’. I certainly did. Yet today the 68-year-old author of When I’m Sixty-four, Sir Paul McCartney, is still composing, still performing, is still a global celebrity, still has a full head of hair, and continues to be much photographed alongside his latest girlfriend, 50-year-old Nancy Shevell.
So ageing is, indeed, very much a matter of perspective. How would Sir Paul define ‘getting old’ today? Might he place the phenomenon as starting somewhere in his eighties? In other words for today’s generation in their sixties, ‘getting old’ is probably much further on than they imagined it would be when they were in their twenties. A problem with such speculation is that it is simply that: ‘getting old’ is just another phase in our unknowable future. As Jan Morris once put it, “you feel you are treading unknown territory, leaving your own land behind you”.
It is hard to project notions of a ‘good old age’ in a society so obsessed with youth culture. Against this, many prevalent images of ‘getting old’ are over-associated with infirmity and illness, as the Welsh Government’s Advisory Group pointed out:
“… old age is seen typically as a process of infirmity and illness. This is replicated throughout society, for example the road sign warning of old people crossing the road shows two hunched old people, both leaning on sticks.”
Yet, even with much older people, the reality can be quite different. I’m sure anyone reading this can point to a role model. Here’s mine. In his late eighties at the turn of the 21st Century, the late Professor John Lewis, who originally hailed from Bedwas in the Rhymney Valley, now lived alone in a small house in a Somerset village, having moved from Penarth to be near his son. He was virtually house bound. Yet within the confines of his limited surroundings he managed to live a rich and varied life, and was a source of humour, advice and delight to all who visited him, which of course made them visit often.
Professor Lewis was attached to the Institute of Education at the University of London, but spent most of his life abroad, in Africa and the Far East. Qualifying in chemistry from Cardiff University in the 1930s he became a teacher and then head teacher in Nigeria, and subsequently taught in a university in Ghana. On the transition to Zimbabwe’s independence in the early 1980s he was invited to become Vice Chancellor of the country’s National University. Later he became Vice Chancellor of the University of Papua New Guinea, only retiring in his late seventies. By the time he reached his late eighties his second wife had died and illness meant he was rarely able to leave his home.
However, his time was filled with activities, planned out with meticulous thoroughness from week to week. Mornings would be spent reading the papers and journals – he subscribed to the Literary Review, the Times Literary Supplement, and the London Review of Books – listening to a set piece of music on his Bose system, and dealing with correspondence. The afternoon would be set aside for a programme of reading. Although a scientist his main interests by this time were the humanities, and especially history. He was collecting and reading the complete works of the Dutch Renaissance humanist Erasmus. These took up some 100 volumes, the later ones yet to be completed, and he hoped to be still alive by the time the final volume was published. Evenings would be devoted to television documentaries and dramas, some recorded, and more music. And, of course there would be visits, from family and later nurses on a regular basis to deal with his medical needs. It is true to say that all who visited him looked forward to doing so, found him a delight and a source of much counsel.
It might be argued, with some justification, that Professor Lewis was an unusual man, an intellectual with many rich and varied experiences to draw upon, and so hardly typical. Nonetheless, he’s my role model for at least three reasons. First, and most important, he provided an inspiration for all who knew him of how even a seemingly restrictive older age can be a life well worth living, with constant sources of interest and engagement.
Secondly, he was a man of some resilience, a quality that is gaining currency as an essential resource for ageing that should be cultivated in younger people.
Finally for all these reasons, and despite many vicissitudes of health, he remained until very close to his end, staunchly independent, and a fount of much wisdom. So if I endure to be 94 I hope that I’ll be living a life as richly fulfilled as that enjoyed by John Lewis.
John Osmond’s recent report for the Older People’s Commissioner for Wales, Adding Life to years, can be accessed here