Mary Kenny: How rise of older role models can give us all a fresh start
Published 24/03/2014 | 02:30
You would need to be a very senior citizen indeed to recall the days when the most popular musical performer was Vera Lynn, singing 'We'll Meet Again' back in the 1940s.
But hey, Dame Vera is not only still with us: she is about to release a new album at the age of 97. It will be a mixture of her collected songs over the past 65 years and some re-mastered more recently.
Meanwhile, the latest sensation on London's West End stage is Angela Lansbury, who's 88. Dame Angela, who is an Irish citizen and sometime resident – the Irish Cabinet had to give 'incorporeal permission' for her damehood to be bestowed – has just had rave reviews for her role as Madame Arcati in a new production of Noel Coward's 'Blithe Spirit'. The play's director, incidentally, is Michael Blakemore, aged 85.
And actress Joan Collins – almost 81 – has just launched a new career as a businesswoman, with her own line of beauty products. Englebert Humperdinck, aged 77, also has a new album just out, 'Englebert Calling', in which he duets with Elton John, Willie Nelson and Kenny Rogers, themselves no spring chickens. Bruce Forsyth says he's getting on a bit now for his role in 'Strictly', but he's flown the flag for oldies well into his 80s. Our own Gay Byrne, as well as being the road safety czar, is enjoying a thriving renaissance in his broadcasting career at Lyric FM.
There is no shortage of commentators who say that this is the age of youth-worship, in which older people – notably women – become "invisible" after the age of 50. It is, understandably, in the natural order of things that youthful looks are admired – physical beauty is at its pinnacle between the ages of 15 and 35, and people have worshipped the beauty of youth ever since the Greeks.
Any role that depends on physical prowess must be linked to youth: even the great Brian O'Driscoll mused that at a certain age, a rugby ace must quit. Dynamism and inventiveness also depend on young people – Silicon Valley was full of 18-year-old geniuses, and the great techie innovators like Mark Zuckerberg are typically driven by youthful energy and fresh, adaptive brains.
In its rightful place, a 'youth cult' is appropriate because the young are inventive, clever and physically attractive. And yet, there is ample evidence that this is also an era in which the old, too, can have their place in the sun, and can have rich lives and opportunities.
More people in the 'age' are going to college and university and taking up new challenges than ever before – and the culture is welcoming to oldies who decide on a new life. As it happens, I applied to do an MA in Drama Studies myself this year, and the attitude of the university was positive and encouraging: senior citizens meet with no discrimination.
Politicians have an especially respectful attitude to the older generations because oldies vote more conscientiously than other age groups. It used to be thought, in commerce, that it was more difficult to 'market' commodities to older people, because firstly, they had bought all the stuff they needed by the time they hit 50, and secondly, they had formed their purchasing habits in their 20s and were unlikely to change.
BUT that's no longer true, as research has shown that grandparents are a significant factor in the support and equipping of the next generation, helping with everything from mortgages to school fees, and all that is needed in between. Anyway, oldies do change their purchasing habits: your favourite treat at 25 is likely to be a different one at 65.
The demographics also give seniors a hefty element of people power. Because populations are now living so much longer, there are more of them, and there is an ever-growing market for their needs and desires. When the British chancellor, George Osborne, last week gave greater flexibility in pension choices from 2015, there were suggestions that pensioners would blow any windfalls on round-the-world cruises, which is a huge craze among the retired. Most oldsters are too sensible, but the market power of pension spending was an issue.
It would be silly to take an over-optimistic view of old age, and imagine that everyone could be a stage star at 88 (or, like the writer Penelope Fitzgerald, start producing great novels in their 60s). There can be many pains and sorrows associated with the passing of the years, including declining health, both mental and physical.
And any older person must be aware that their time on Earth is growing shorter every day and there are dreary duties around planning funerals and arranging wills – hardly a laugh a minute.
All the same, it's heartening to see that there are uplifting examples of individuals who are hale and hearty into their 80s and that they have the opportunities to go on doing what they do well – and even embark on new projects to which they can bring their experience, like Dr Mary Hobson, who received the Pushkin Gold Medal for Russian translation at 74, having only started to learn the language at the age of 56. We all need role models to cheer us on, and it's cheering indeed to note that there are many inspiring ones.