The message from Virginia Ironside is loud and clear – stop grumbling about getting old and start making the most of it.
As one of our longest serving agony aunts it should come as no surprise to find Virginia, 65, dispensing advice to other baby boomers about getting the most out of their twilight years.
In her book, The Virginia Monologues: Twenty Reasons Why Growing Old Is Great, she gives the lie to virtually all negative thoughts about the ageing process, including death itself.
'I see death as something rather wonderful to look forward to,' she writes. 'I see it as a merciful relief from all life’s anxieties and troubles. The idea of coming back again, even as a chirpy robin let alone a human being, fills me with horror.'
But the lion’s share of Virginia’s book is devoted to thinking positively, and where possible humorously, about the mixed blessing of moving from middle to old age.
Five reasons to be cheerful
Within minutes of our meeting she has come up with five reasons to be cheerful:
- You have more confidence than you did when you were younger.
- You can stand out from the crowd if you put a bit of effort into looking good and choosing your clothes carefully.
- The lessening of the sex drive is a bonus for most of us.
- You can discuss your ailments openly with your friends in the certain knowledge they will want to discuss theirs.
- There is a lot of anxiety about being on your own, but a lot of benefits as well.
Living alone for more than a decade, Virginia says she is not sure she could cope with being with somebody any more. “I’ve got used to being on my own,” she says. “I do miss being with somebody but I’m not a great compromiser.”
In the book she advises ageing singles, widows and divorcees to revel in their singularity: “If there is nobody else to make you feel special, you’ll have to do it yourself.”
Among other things, she recommends a daily soak in a hot bath, with bath oil, or a weekly massage if you can afford it.
She also lists half a dozen plus factors to being alone, including:
- not having to wrestle your partner for the remote control
- not having to suffer anyone’s unscheduled mood swings
- not having to apologise for being late home
- and, if you’re a woman, not having to shave your legs
Virginia believes one of the greatest boons of ageing is the arrival of confidence you never had as a younger person. You can turn down invitations to social occasions with the flimsiest of excuses; you find yourself smiling at strangers in the street; you can lie with impunity in order to get the attention of shop assistants, waiters and disinterested troubleshooters on the end of a telephone line.
'When I was young everyone older than me was frightening,' admits Virginia. 'The confidence comes not with just feeling others are a threat but actually no longer being a threat. If I’m not frightened of you and you’re not frightened of me, then that breeds confidence – and friendliness – on either side.'
Coping with isolation
The business of how older people interact with strangers is a recurring theme in the book, especially as it relates to loneliness and unlooked for solitude.
'I’ve sometimes got dressed in order to go to the local library, discuss the weather with the librarian, exchange a book and come home again, just to get clear the whole idea of who I am,' confesses Virginia.
'It’s all too easy, when being alone, to start to feel that you are just a non-person, a glass of water poured into another glass of water. Without other people, it’s easy in no more than a few hours, to imagine yourself as just a blob of nothingness. A small bit of conversation can usually put things right.'
Another antidote to isolation, she says, is the impetus to keep yourself looking good, which doesn’t mean having Botox injections or tummy tucks, but rather dressing stylishly and if you’re a woman, taking trouble over your make-up.
'Some women just seem to have given up being women completely,' she says. 'They look just like lumps on legs. The standard of looks in England is so low that with the minimum of effort you can stand out as some kind of ancient Marlene Dietrich or Tina Turner. It just takes a bit of flair and courage. A good-looking oldie can have the time or his or her life, particularly in England.
'Looking good not only lifts your own spirits, but also other people’s as they see you walking down the street. In my book, looking one’s best is actually a kind of good manners.'
Virginia is all for ageing naturally as well as gracefully. She has zero tolerance for the Peter Pan syndrome, especially prevalent in the male of the species. 'People who keep pretending to be young are just pathetic specimens, the sort of folk who despise facelifts but are, by their actions, chasing a lost youth.
'I don't want to be young any more. It’s so boring. I don't want to bicycle across Mongolia or go bungee-jumping. I like the fact that my love affair with life is settling into comfortable companionability.'
'The Virginia Monologues: Why growing old is great' (Fig Tree, £7.99) is available now in paperback.