A paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick



My father was forever a young man at heart, with an eye for the ladies and an eclectic taste in contemporary music. And he walked and cycled all his life to frantically appease his fear of annihilation.

Not long before he died in his 81st year he said to me: “You know, in my mind I’m still young but the body is letting me down.”

That was 23 years ago.

These days we live in a time preoccupied with youth, with attempting to stay forever young with the plethora of pills and potions now readily available. Yet, there is wonderful character in a face of lines, like my father, provided the person of that countenance is at ease with the inevitability of ageing – unlike my father. And the stories such lines could tell.

Once upon this writer would have been considered to have reached old age. Now, with life expectancy never greater, I am considered middle aged. Once upon a time too, the consolation for reaching middle age was being allowed to go disgracefully to seed.

What joy to finally let yourself go, to throw away the hair dye, expand the waistline, stop feeling bad about never exercising, and finally give up the pretence of keeping up with fashion or music.

Just throw on the old geansai, and let it all hang out.

Not that I want to necessarily do that – to give up being a dedicated follower of fashion or new music, and put on that old geansai and let it all hang out.

But for those who wish to approach old age with a certain freedom and fecklessness, unrestrained and answerable to few, there are others, the ‘health gurus’, who dictate differently.

Times have changed, and the era newly named middle age is no longer such an appealing place to do one’s own thing. Welcome to the world of the new old, where the over-60s are as brazenly bombarded, as are their young adult children, by a torrent of alleged advice on staying leaner, meaner and hotter for longer.

The new ‘life recipe’ for the over-60s in essence boils down to far fewer calories plus a lot of (arguable) anti-ageing turmeric and flaxseeds.

However, my point is that the this new regime is not so much about a healthy weight as it is about defying the slowing down, spreading out and softening up that comes naturally with ageing bodies.

You can barely open a magazine or Sunday newspaper supplement without coming across some new so-called miracle for defying the undefiable – all illustrated by photos of what look like twentysomething bodies, with abs so taut they defy anatomy, spruced up with anti-ageing tips of a somewhat dubious scientific nature.!

We are brazenly bombarded, as are our young adult children, by a torrent of alleged advice on staying leaner, meaner and hotter for longer. more sex, learn a new language, and don’t forget to do that crossword to keep your brain lucid!

Am I becoming that grumpy old man or do these health mags and gurus have a point? Perhaps.

This new-fangled self-improvement industry is moving on from a myriad ways of saying “don’t get fat” to something more like “don’t get old”, or at least, not in a manner that may prove a burden to your adult kids, your younger neighbours or the HSE.

There was a time when the painful, debilitating diseases of old age were, regrettably, unavoidable twists of fate or genetics. But the increasing evidence that even conditions like dementia – let alone diabetes, cancer or cardiac disease – are somehow linked to diet and exercise begs a dawning degree of responsibility.

When she was a teenager my daughter, would say to me: “ Be nice to me dad: remember I’ll be choosing your nursing home.”

She was joking back then.

Now, she says to me: “Be nice to yourself dad: you don’t want to end up gaga in a nursing home.”

She’s deadly serious now.

Me, a burden in old age? Like Yeats’ ‘paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick’?

We’ll see about that, Mr Yeats …. and darling daughter.

We’ll see…

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