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My golden oldie chums who set me an example

OLD age, so say the sages, sucks.

It is not something for cissies or wimps. The best we can hope for is a graceful, slow, silver-haired, disease-free decline.

As the years pass we become ever less mobile and must resort to sticks and scooters to get from Asda to Tesco. Stuff - hair, teeth, income - falls out and drops off. Fearful of the future, we stick to who and what we know.

Where once we strove for the shock of the new now we regard anything new with suspicion. We crave the familiar, the routine, the conservative.

Anyone who says old is gold, as the American essayist Robert Sherrill once remarked, is either demented or a mindless optimist or, worse, someone under 40 doing a study on the subject.

Nor, it seems, are things getting any better. As we are constantly reminded, we can expect a visit from one or another lethal assailant. If you don't have a stroke or a heart attack, you can count on cancer or cirrhosis.

Daily we are bombarded with advice and the results of research, telling us to avoid red meat and coffee, inhale fresh air, read books, get off our backsides, nourish our evaporating brain cells, drop by the surgery to have our blood pressure measured and our cholesterol counted. Nothing must be left to chance.

Alzheimer's is public enemy number one. According to the Alzheimer's Society, the risk of getting the disease after the age of 65 doubles approximately every five years. From 65 to 80, one in 14 of us can expect to get it and one in six over the age of 80.

The latest good news - if such it can be called - is that if you walk three days a week for 20 minutes at a time, you may be spared. Chances are, though, the more you walk the more likely you are to be knocked down by a thundering lorry.

In the face of this fearful fusillade I remain defiant. Not, I hasten to add, because I am a picture of health.

These days, when I have the courage to look in a mirror, I see staring back at me someone who looks eerily like my father, and not when he was in his pomp.

No, what cheers me are my friends, many of whom will not see 80 again. Indeed, a couple of them have recently breezed past 90 and show no sign of letting up. On the contrary, in many respects they put me to shame.

Lest I cause embarrassment I shall refrain from naming them. All of them, however, are remarkable not only for their energy but their curiosity.

They get up of a morning, read the paper, listen to the radio and tackle each day as if it were a plate of food previously foreign to their palate.

They will travel hundreds of miles to attend an opera or view a painting.

One, for example, whose 80th birthday is looming, drove with his wife 1,200 miles in a week, visiting galleries, stately piles and quirky gardens the length and breadth of the land.

Another, who is 90 and then some, is in Italy, where he is resting prior to assaulting the Edinburgh International Festival.

He himself is due at the Book Festival where his appearance is sure to cause sparks to fly.

He is a passionate theatre-goer but he is an equally eager diner out. There are few nights when he and his wife are confined to barracks.

Though he is in a wheelchair he thinks nothing of taking public transport to a venue. Until a couple of years ago winter for him would have been unbearable without a visit to the ski slopes.

There are countless others like them. One friend always has a long list of books on his bedside table, few of which could be dismissed as trash.

Another paints at a level most Turner Prize winners can only dream of attaining. Yet another is in demand as a lecturer and is writing books which constantly question orthodoxies.

These are restless, omnivorous, feisty people in whose company it is always a pleasure to be.

If anything troubles them it is not the thought of going gaga or their limbs turning to jelly, but the knowledge that their pasts are longer than their futures. For them, every day is too short.

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