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What they don't tell you about old age

Blog | By Keith McDowall | May 25, 2020

The British Museum (Credit: Ham)

The best thing about old age is that it doesn’t last long - so the old line goes - but in generally it lasts much longer than most of us expect.

Of course there are illnesses on the way to which sadly many succumb,

But an increasingly large number of us have surprised ourselves in how much longer we are living than we expected.

The trouble is that most of us are learning about long-term survival on the job. And just when we think we have got it licked……someone lowers the curtain. Or flings in some unexpected impairment.

So to start at the beginning……..the most important thing to remember is never, ever, tell others than you are retired. Banish that word from your lexicon.

Mere mention of the condition at a cocktail party or almost any gathering makes the eyes of that good-looker, to whom your hostess has just introduced you, glaze over. She stiffens, casts her eye round the room and just happens to spot an old friend on the other side and she’s gone.

I’m told it works the other way round too.

So next time one of them asks ‘What do you do ?” offer just one word.


It nearly always stops them in their tracks. And suddenly they are concentrating on you, seeking to know more. What does it mean - are you an engineer, a scientist, a mathematician maybe?

Well, not exactly, but I am like a finely-tuned machine whirring over quietly. Not meshed at the moment….but should I move forward I could burst into life, I could accelerate to maximum revs, I could do all sorts of interesting things…..

“For example have I told you about…?

And then you are on your own. For a brief moment or two you have got your listener’s attention for but it is up to you to seize it. You’ve not been written off, you are suddenly a real person again.

That’s important. The worst part about getting older is a feeling that you are no longer quite on top of situations - and others think quietly that’s the case.

Take it from there.

I have been using that tactic for a decade or so and I know it works. I always tell my friends that any Senior Citizen is free to tell others that he or she is disengaged but after that they are on their own. Or come up with their own alternative.

But the thought made me consider what else my generation could hand to those coming along behind us who do not feel they are completely over the hill - whose brains still work, most of the time, health is reasonably adequate, and they’re still interested in what is going on around them.

Best of all - while sons and daughters concern themselves with what is our latest daft idea with which they must cope, grandchildren still find us interesting.

Our generation is extremely fortunate that it can enjoy a good relationship with grandchildren till they are well into their thirties. I barely knew my two grandmothers but today my six grandchildren are pals and I can have a talk with my great grand-daughter who is three and chatters away to me.

So here are my lessons, learned the hard way, of refusing to come to terms with old age. Adapting ,perhaps, but staying in charge.

What I have found out about coping with trains, planes, buses and cars; banks; car insurance; coffins,funerals, and undertakers ; writing wills ; how to get the best out of hospitals and the NHS; managing relatives or avoiding them; bribing grandchildren; homes, houses and flats; gardening - or avoiding it - and a host of practical experience which you are very welcome to embrace.

In short a plain man’s guide to what I have found out the hard way and how it might help you to get the best out of what may well turn out to be the best years of your life.

Because remember what is happening right now to you is the real thing - there is no dress rehearsal………

If you are going to keep this fined-tuned,efficient machine - you - running well you are going to have to look after it. And that may well cost you .

Yes, there is the wonderful National Health Service but in many cases we will have some kind of private healthcare. This is good as far as it goes. But it does go - and one gets older it becomes less and less available unless you can afford to top it up. The private companies behind it only want your business so long as it is profitable to them.

Once you start seeking payment for heart condition, backache,or other serious conditions like prostate problems, up will go the premiums.

When mine had reached £500 a month I knew I could not really go on - just as the ghouls of rivals healthcare had calculated.

When I worked out what I had paid in on monthly chunks and what private health had paid out for me I realised what I should have done was to have paid into a dedicated account and built up my own fund. At one time it could even have been earning interest….

I found too that you can haggle with consultants and specialists once they know you do not have private medical insurance. They will often come down to quite reasonable figures once you have the courage to ask. Try it.

Another good plan is to take out insurance cover for minor ailments such as dental care, new glasses, chiropody. If you shop around there are a number of small companies competing for this share of your business. They have rules but nothing like as draconian as the greedy big boys.

Turning to the National Health Service it is indeed a remarkable facility but one that needs to be tuned to suit you - which with perseverance can surprisingly be achieved.

First my advice is to try to cultivate a relationship with your GP. They are generally in a partnership of three or four but once you have identified the one you prefer, try hard to always to go back to him or her. In this way you become a real person to the GP - which makes their daily grind slightly more interesting, but some continuity is established.

When they look back at your notes, it is their own they are reading - and a better recall emerges. Gradually you become Mr or Mrs. Better still they use your first name.

You are then in a stronger position to ask questions or make suggestions. To say which hospital you would prefer, which department or even name a specialist - which you have already identified by researching the internet. Amazing what you can find on Google about the team of specialists at your local NHS hospital.

Getting an appointment with your GP or with a specialist is often uphill work. But persistence and politeness pays off. Come across as an eminently decent, sympathetic person - hectoring or bullying, especially over the phone, is counter-productive. Once the receiver is replaced they always have the last word.

Another good practice when making a personal visit is to arrive looking reasonably smart and tidy. I know ties and jackets are old fashioned but they still do command attention and present a better image than turning up in tracksuit and trainers,announcing to all and sundry that you are a bit past it. So you can be treated accordingly. -5-

Of course the really best advice is to try to keep yourself sufficiently well and healthy that you do to need medical help in the earlier stages of our new life.

Well you know all about what you should and should not eat or drink and I am assuming you are not silly enough to be a smoker .

Weighing yourself daily is quite a good plan, always of course wearing the same and as little as possible,

If you see the pounds creeping up you can do something about it quickly. Skipping wine for a day or too or renouncing bread yields quite quick results as does the dieting course where you fast for two days and eat for five.

The problem. Is keeping it up and having some kind of rhythm but it is worth working at it.

You can do a lot by some walking or best still taking a short daily trip to the swimming pool. For those who have their own pool or belong to a private gym that presents no problem.

But do not spurn your local municipally-run swimming pool which mostly are well-run. Morning and evening, many are divided into fast, medium and slow lanes and are worth giving a try. You may even find some kindred souls in the changing room where the banter can often be crisp.

So they have raised the pensionable age again. But that doesn’t mean you cannot act on the best bargain in Britain for senior citizens.

That’s what you are going to be shortly, mate.

It is called the Senior Railcard and it nestles in with your other credit cards very nicely. You may be asked to produce it on a train but not often. Stations like to see it but if you book on-line they have all your details stored. So off comes the discount!

What your new railcard will do is to give you a third off a railway journey almost everywhere - they don’t like it being used in commuter time in inner London. Apart from that for £30 - or if you are smart, just £27 - you can use it to go anywhere you like.

And as you are just setting off on this new phase in life you can gamble and take a three year card which will only cost you £70. So you can get a third off,say, a first class off peak to Scotland and back and travel like a Lord. It works all over Britain but sadly stops at The Channel.

You can get senior citizen discounts on Eurostar but that does not cover SNCF, the French railways or the TGV. But from what I have heard by the time the fare is discounted there is not much in it.

No matter, with your UK Senior Railcard you have made your first step into your new world and you won’t regret it.

It is not so simple with bus and tram travel - in fact it becomes quite complicated - and much depends where you live. But in London for example you cannot get the well-named Freedom Pass until you are 65. You have to register with your local authority which,quite rightly, will check you out thoroughly.

Should you live in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, however, you can qualify for the free pass at age 60. All very confusing but some justification can be made that public bus and tube travel in London is so good it costs the London boroughs big bucks. So you have to stand in line until you are 65.

I have started off on transport because in the Golden Age of Disengagement you are going to be getting around. And you do not always have to go by car and worry whether you will find a place to park.

It is time to visit all the libraries and art galleries you have had in mind for most of your life. Castles too. Take my case - for over 30 years I drove past the British Museum, noted the tourists flooding in and continued on my way.

Then one day I took my disengaged self to the British Museum, climbed that huge mountain of steps on which I had seen students posing for photos and went inside - completely free. Again a wonderful bargain of which so many of us are unaware.

I saw - at last - the Elgin Marbles and went into the famous Reading Room, no longer put to its original use. There I quietly achieved a little ambition and saw where Marx and Engels had once studied. But now it is embraced in the Great Court Restaurant, a brilliant revitalisation by Norman Foster and his colleagues.

Take your friends for lunch there. Bet they will have no idea the place exists.

But back to cheaper travel and getting about which is important while you have your health and energy.

Should you not be so good on your pins, have medical proof of a serious back condition, or other ailment you may be eligible for the famous Blue Badge.

You apply to your local authority and if you get one, your life will be transformed. Places open up for you to park in the most congested of areas - you can get priority outside railway stations, at airports - the famous Blue Badge even works at places like congested Wimbledon during the tennis, if you plan ahead.

If your local authority is disinclined to give you one though, do not give up. There is an appeals procedure which may involve an interview, a test or two and that is the time to produce any further medical evidence to support your case.

Once you have your Blue Badge you will find the symbol is recognised internationally and though often local conditions apply it will work on the Continent and sometimes in parts of the United States. It has for me anyway.

But starting out on getting around has brought me to deal with health quite quickly. Because you will discover the Numbr One Priority is keeping well - not necessarily up to Olympic standards but passably fit.

If you are disabled though there are an array of ways in which you can get help but people so rarely seek them out.

Take the trains again - the Assisted Travel service provided by the railways companies nowdays is quite brilliant.

You no longer have to struggle with luggage and get beaten to the best seats by those younger and fitter. By booking ahead - and assisted travel will even book your tickets - you will be met at the station and taken usually by electric buggy to your train and your luggage put safely aboard. There is help too getting to your seat . They may even offer you the daily newspaper.

At the end of your journey you can be met on the destination platform - suitcases offloaded for you and helped to the taxi or to waiting friends.

This is the way to travel once you are not so nimble or maybe short of breath, yes - let the train people take the strain.

But don’t stop there. A similar service applies with most airlines. It is just a question of asking in good time and planning ahead.

So far as I have found every airline and every airport has a system for dealing with people like us. They are fully geared up with wheelchairs and electric buggies to get us through the congested airport, through security and to the door of the plane. The folk running these services know the best way around their airport, which queue to bypass, what doors leads where, how to meet the ever-more stringent security demands and ensuring passport control is happy. It usually works like a dream.

At the door of your waiting plane, the crew are quite accustomed to dealing with we older people and like to get them into their seats before the flood of passengers, laden with carry-on cases descends. By the time that happens you should be comfortable in your seat and looking at the list of wine being served today.

It suits the airplane people and it will certainly suit you.

Do-it-Yourselfing is another sphere in which it can be quite advantageous to be a Senior Citizen

A number of the big stores offer senior discounts - notably B&Q which may even have pioneered it.

Get along and get yourself their Diamond Card which entitles you to seek a ten per cent discount every Wednesday. When you make your first purchase with the card they give you a £5 voucher to come off your next £30 spent in the store.

So it pays to plan ahead when you need to buy some DIY item. Don’t just jump into the car and drive to DIY store on a Saturday with everyone else. The whole idea is that B@Q want to encourage trading in the middle of the week and who better than you to meet their wishes….

It is the same with lots of cinemas. Generally big chains like Vue and Odeon give senior discounts at the time of purchase- just stick your neck out and ask. But many of the small cinema groups know they have to match it. It is worth asking at most theatres too. After all we Senior Citizens have the time to take in a major show and can plan attendance . It does not have to be on a Friday or Saturday when the pressure is on.

National Trust kept it quiet for a long time but when pressed will a offer a member of ten years standing a 25 per cent discount off the subscription which is well worth having.

Not to be outdone English Heritage which was once called the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works looks after lots of interesting castles and other major piles but can charge quite heftily at the turnstile. But pushed they will give a Senior Citizen a special membership rate of £43.50. Not to be sniffed at……