WITH the post-festive comedown in full swing, I realise this is perhaps not the ideal time to ruminate about death. So, forgive me if I press ahead, especially since what I really want to talk about is staying alive.

A few days ago, the media was awash with headlines describing how comedian Sir Billy Connolly, who is 76 and has Parkinson’s disease, was, in his own words, “slipping away”. Many rushed to the conclusion that Glasgow’s, Scotland’s, the world’s beloved Big Yin is on his last legs, leading to an outpouring of grief on social media (multiple tear face emojis).

Then the TV programme that featured Sir Billy’s quote was shown and it became clear everyone had seriously jumped the gun. Indeed, not only was the Billy Connolly of the BBC’s excellent Made in Scotland documentary very much alive and looking pretty well in comparison to many Glaswegian 76 year-olds, but the supposedly grim words picked up on by the media were part of a much deeper meditation on ageing and memory, both poignant and uplifting, the likes of which anyone of pensionable age, not least those with a chronic condition, would be likely to deliver.

“I am at the point where the yesteryears mean more than the yesterdays,” said Sir Billy in the show, which took him back to the places that have meant most to him in his life. “I go to all those things that made me, that live keenest in my memory now. My life, it’s slipping away and I can feel it, and I should. I’m 75 [when the film was made], I’m near the end - I’m a damn sight nearer the end than I am the beginning. But it doesn’t frighten me, it’s an adventure and it is quite interesting to see myself slipping away.”

As he walked around Glasgow and Rothesay, spoke eloquently to camera and played the banjo beautifully, the picture that emerged was of an intelligent, witty, very funny elderly man putting his life in perspective, talking openly, movingly and with humour about what it’s like to live with a degenerative illness. Strikingly, this was also a Billy who is - to misquote The Shawshank Redemption - getting busy living rather than getting busy dying, relishing the now and planning for the future.

Unsurprisingly, Connolly obviously felt uncomfortable with all the rather ghoulish premature grieving, and his wife, Pamela Stevenson, reiterated her husband’s vitality yesterday on social media by posting a video of him playing the banjo at their Florida home, grinning cheekily while telling us he is “not dying, not dead, not slipping away”.

Olivia Newton-John, meanwhile, was forced to do almost exactly the same thing at the weekend after reports she was “clinging to life”. The Australian star of Grease, 70, has cancer, and also posted a video of herself on social media, telling fans “rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated”.

How grim and mortifying that she and Sir Billy should feel the need to post such responses. Ill-health has always played a big role in celebrity culture, of course, fuelled by an increasingly voracious media.

But social media undoubtedly adds an even more intense and morbid dimension to all this, giving everyone an immediate public platform to discuss and speculate upon the intimate details of someone else’s health, creating instant eulogies in 280 characters, spreading - sometimes inadvertently - hurtful half-truths like wildfire.

I don’t doubt that most of those who posted about Sir Billy and Ms Newton-John meant well enough as they tweeted, Facebooked and Instragramed their premature sadness at the supposed demise of two such well kent faces. But the willingness, even strange enjoyment with which we seem to jump ahead to the endgame suggests we are losing even the most rudimentary respect for the privacy and dignity of others.

Surely the very least we can do to honour someone we admire in death is wait until they are actually deceased?

People often speculate about the illness of a friend or relative, but at least we usually have the decency to do this in private. Will this crucial social courtesy be next to go, I wonder?

Sir Billy has said on multiple occasions since being diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2013 that he doesn’t want people to feel sorry for him. (I can’t imagine how hurtful it must have been when his “pal” Michael Parkinson publicly described his brain as “dulled”.) He doesn’t strike me as the “woe is me” sort. And, as he made clear in the documentary, he genuinely feels he has left his mark on the world. How many of us can say that?

The Big Yin has been open about his struggle with Parkinson’s, possibly because he had little choice – there is no hiding the cruel physical effects of the condition. But in doing so, in laughing in the face of adversity, he is helping others to cope.

In return, we should surely afford him, and indeed all others facing illness, famous or no, dignity and respect by responding sensitively, intelligently and humanely to their plight. There but for the grace of God go any of us.