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Alan Hamilton - Author & Editor

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The Sixth Age

At the end of July 2017 I started on my eighty-second year. Just saying it makes me feel old – but as recently as my parents' generation, it was old.


What does it feel like, physically, to be eighty-one?


Well, I can only answer my own question from my own situation. If I put it to others of exactly the same age I'll get as many different responses as I've 'had hot dinners', as we used to say up north – and over the years I've had lots of those.


In this piece I want to explore the physical aspects of my age. As it happens, in the Times Magazine of September 9th 2017, there was a feature on the pairing of Robert Redford and Jane Fonda in the film Our Souls at Night, he being exactly my age, she a couple of years younger. Now Redford has always been someone I wished I'd looked like when I was younger (no chance!), but in the latest pictures, while the hair is recognisable, the facial and neck skin is that of an old man – a very old man.


For some years now I've amused myself with the game 'I wonder how old he is?' I say 'he' because I can only compare myself with other males. So many women, à la Fonda, manage to look that much younger than their real age I'd find myself having entirely inappropriate thoughts rather than a serious guesstimate of their chronological age. Well, inappropriate at my age, anyway.


I'm fortunate to be in pretty good shape. My hair, like Redford's, is still a full head covering, and, although there are gaps, my teeth are all mine. So far my face and neck skin have avoided the ravages that appear in the Times photos – though that may be down to different lifestyles. And that's highly relevant. Around me I see plenty of men, who might be able to claim 'I have the body of an eighty year old – and I'm only fifty-eight'.


I can manage a ninety minute workout at the gym two or sometimes three times a week and I go up and down a flight of twenty-five stairs several times each day. But there's evidence of wear and tear. My lower back now visits a chiropractor every fortnight and I'm on anti-inflammatories. I can't remain in the same position in bed at night for as long as I once could.


My balance is going – I'm careful not to turn quickly and need to be close to something to grab or lean against when I step into my underpants or trousers. And when I go down those twenty-five stairs, I hold on to the banister, knowing I can't afford the consequences that would accompany a fall.


I also know that in the past few years I've become increasingly clumsy. I drop things, don't get hold of them firmly, or don't place them properly so I have to bend down to pick them up. And doing that gets more awkward.


Nor have I, in spite of what I suppose would be called 'looking after myself' – most of my life eating and drinking sensibly, taking plenty of exercise – managed to avoid unpleasant things happening to my body.


I've been an insulin-dependent diabetic for the past seventeen years and just over three years ago had an operation for bowel cancer that left me with a stoma and all the delights associated with a colostomy bag, not the least of which is the huge hernia which gives my middle a decidedly lopsided appearance.


In accepting the realities of my age I've had to stop physical activities which I'd only started at the very end of my sixties. For almost the whole of my seventies I crewed a racing sailing dinghy – and we won a good few races and got the trophies that went with doing it, and I, of course, got the bruises and sprains that come with throwing yourself about in a small boat. The bowel operation put paid to doing that.


For all that decade, and up to September last year (2016) I sailed a bigger boat in the Mediterranean until I felt that with my deteriorating balance I was becoming a liability to those sailing with me. The early signs were no longer being able to stride with confidence up and down the plank between the stern and the quayside. Over the same time, I'd been an enthusiastic, if not particularly good, skier. I did a fair few red runs and on one occasion, unawares, a black which would have scared me witless if I'd realised where I was. That had to go too.


All that's left is to stand at the bottom of a run and watch others skid broadside to a stop as I used to do.


And inseparable from ageing, there's a long drawn-out sense of loss, as one says 'goodbye' to stimulating, sometimes exciting, things you did up to only a few years ago, much like when listening to the news you hear of the death of yet another name which you'd come to regard as a fixture in your life.


In my next piece I'll present my growing old from a mental perspective. Perhaps it's this, rather than the physical deterioration, which most exercises us, the elderly, and those who care for and about us.


'I can live with not being able to get about without a stick or a frame; but to have my brain go dark . . .'.

My first blog about growing old....