SOME time ago on a visit to New York I watched in astonishment as a lady, probably in her 70s with grey hair, wearing a bright blue shell suit and inhabiting the frail body of an elderly person, weaved her way in and out of traffic on Fifth Avenue.
She was on rollerblades. My admiration for her was boundless and envious knowing that should I reach her years, I would never be able to do this, mainly because I'm a tremulous mess, unless my flat shoes are touching the ground.
A colleague in the US, with whom I am collaborating, called me one morning recently. I assumed he was at home as he is nearly 80. Then I heard him speak to a nurse and he told me he was at work and about to begin his ward round.
The following week he was heading West on a skiing holiday. He has no plans to retire, nor, as I understand it, does he have to. The US takes a very liberal view of the ageing process and allows people to work indefinitely.
In this country and in most European counties, society's expectations of those of older age are, to say the least, modest. We have images of bingo, perhaps to the pub occasionally, playing boules (in France at any rate) and meeting old friends for a chat.
If they are Irish, they may go to morning Mass and the height of their week may be a trip to the hairdresser, which has special offers for 'OAPs' on weekday mornings. Even clothes for older people are often ill-fitting, possibly because their financial situation limits their choices.
Many people faced with retirement and the prospect of growing 'old' see a bleak future and infirmity looming.
Many feel they have no status in society and this is what troubles them most. It is a recurring theme in some of my retired older patients.
'Growing old gracefully' is a term that has come to embody the sense of slowing down and quietude that was obvious in older people in decades past. For many, it may now be a constraining and stereotyping term. A newer descriptor may be in order.
While our cultural attitudes to older people have changed only slowly, if at all, over the past century, the reality is that in this period the gap between retirement and death, at least in Europe, is increasing and may be 20 or more years.
Older people themselves are ahead of the rest of society in this. Most are no longer just tranquilly waiting for death.
Large numbers engage very actively in local community initiatives – they have the time, wisdom and commitment that younger working people lack. They have come to accept their limitations and to value their attributes and channel them into areas in which these are needed.
In Ireland, we witnessed their energy when in 2008 the Government decided to change their medical card entitlements. They marched in droves and forced a climb down. The power of the so-called "grey vote" was recognised by Tony Abbott, the newly elected prime minister of Australia, who promised to end the means testing of medication vouchers and to provide $200m for dementia research.
Perhaps the time has come for Irish society as a whole to take a new look at our attitudes to older people. The cult of youth is writ large in our mind set but it should be put in its rightful place and not be accorded the overarching status that it is.
We should ask ourselves, "Is there any reason why, in Britain and Ireland people of 65 or 70 should not appear as newsreaders on TV?" Surely there is a market in the fashion world for interesting but inexpensive garments for older people.
The ubiquitous polyester should by now have had its day and be replaced by more feminine, flowing and colourful products available for the stylishly minded 70-year-old.
We bemoan the fact that many of our politicians are over 60, when in the US some of the most forceful and dynamic among them are not just over 60 but in their 70s.
These include stalwarts such as 73-year-old Nancy Pelosi (pictured), John McCain (77), Mitch McConnell (71) and Harry Reid (73) and all are regularly on television commenting on pressing world affairs.
Finally, there is a case to be made for those over 65 being allowed to continue working so that their status in life as contributors to the wellbeing of the nation can continue.
Most of course would wish to retire to a different phase of their lives but some might not and our country might be the better for their wise, learned and focused contribution, not to mention the invigorating effects of status and activity on the well-being of these, our older citizens.