Written by Judith Holder


Grey Pride

We’re all getting older and life expectancy is rising, so why, asks Judith Holder, aren’t we all in training for old age?

Illustrations by Harriet Carmichael.

It’s official: old people are taking over the world. We’re everywhere, like a rash of adolescents with liver spots and more time on our hands. The over-60s are now the fastest growing section of society and the BBC have just announced that their average viewer is aged 61.

But wait – where are all the over-60s presenters and newsreaders? Where are the oldies in dramas on TV dating, still holding down the day job and dancing in the kitchen to Ed Sheeran? And don’t even get me started on the lack of older women in those roles.

OK, so Mary Berry is the new pinup – hurrah and double hurrah, but on the whole age discrimination is alive and well. A survey this week revealed that almost half of over-50s feel they are overlooked for promotion, ignored in shops, and by bartenders and other drivers on a regular basis.

The world is simply not keeping up with the rapid changes among the older generation. The stereotypes are seriously out of date. We are no longer knitting nanas but more likely to be shopping in Zara. We’re still at work well into our 60s, not at home watching Countdown, going to a whist drive or making tray bakes for the WI. Get with the programme please everyone.

It’s weird, isn’t it? Getting old is the one thing that all of us will do (with luck) and yet it’s the one club no one actively wants to belong to. All of us are surely trainee old people – and yet, even in our 50s and 60s, many of us are in denial rather than in preparation for our last life phase when we will be less mobile and less independent than at any other time of our lives.

“The biggest danger for older people health-wise is not tripping over in the snow, or catching the flu, but sitting down. And we all know how much the old like a nice sit down and a cup of tea.”

Our life expectancy on average rises by five hours a day in the UK, so we might all usefully think about how to make the last phase of our lives the best, when our hip replacements kick in and, little by little, most of the things we love doing are either exhausting, impractical or impossible and our friends start to fall off the perch one by one. Because being properly old is still no party for most of us.

We – the Baby Boomers – are now entering that stage of our lives and for the generation that invented sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll the transition is possibly going to be the cruellest.

There are genuinely things we can do to prepare for this last tricky phase of old age and I’m not talking about pensions, which – since I am caught in the pensions gap – is a sore point.

In any case it’s all a bit late for that now; I’d have to be stashing away tens of thousands every year to make up for the state pension being put back as far as it has been for me and my contemporaries. There were protests, but honestly I can’t believe how long some of us are having to wait for the pensions that we assumed we were going to get at 60.

According to the very brilliant Sir Muir Gray, a leading and distinguished physician on the effects of old age (among other things), exercise is by far the best training we can do.

When he says exercise, he means serious stuff in serious amounts. Men, he says, should be doing at least the number of press ups per day as their age; women should ideally do weightlifting and he recommends upping your exercise every year. The older you get, the more activity you need to do in order to hold back the effects of ageing, or even reverse them.

The biggest danger for older people health-wise is not tripping over in the snow, or catching the flu, but sitting down. And we all know how much the old like a nice sit down and a cup of tea. The worst thing you can do for an older person therefore is to offer them a seat on the tube or treat them to a nice run out to a Toby carvery.

Exercise, Gray says, is the wonder drug to combat the effects of ageing. This is the training we need to be doing. It’s not easy, and I for one now look like I am raising the alarm rather than jogging if I run round the block, while my cycling trousers with undercarriage nappy mean that I very much hope that my newfound invisibility as an older woman does actually kick in. Alas, I invariably meet everyone I know in Waitrose on such occasions. Such is life.

Exercise, then, is what we need to do, and maybe we trainee oldies in our 60s and 70s need to make this happen for the people who are housebound and in care homes. If there was one health campaign worth doing it might be for us all to take over church halls and run exercise classes for the old. It’s happening in Denmark already. The Move it or Lose it movement with classes for seated exercise is a brilliant initiative too.

And maybe for us 60-somethings it’s win-win, as we will be getting fitter at the same time.

Read all of Judith’s previous columns here.


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Written by Judith Holder

Producer/writer of the BBC Two series Grumpy Old Women and the spin off books, and co-writer with Jenny Eclair of the three stage shows which have been international hits.