The date of this issue of The Spectator is 4 January 2014, which also happens to be my 74th birthday. There is nothing very special about being 74 except that it is the last year in which one can be described as being in one’s ‘early seventies’; for it is the last year in which one is closer to 70 than to 80. You may wonder how I am at this pivotal moment in my life? Well, to be frank, not terrific. I get short of breath after climbing the stairs. I have to sit down to put on my socks, and I usually need to take a rest in the afternoon.
My chief problem is something disspiritingly described by doctors as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, which means that I cough rather a lot and make a sound like a little organ pipe when I breathe in and out. This ailment is blamed on many decades of heavy smoking. Though I stopped smoking several years ago, this apparently didn’t help: the damage was already done. On top of that, I am told I have diabetes and take pills for it. At least, that’s what the doctor says I have, even though I am conscious of no symptoms connected with it, and tests usually show my blood sugar level to be quite normal. Sometimes I wonder if they’re not just trying to frighten me.
Anyway, ailing though I may be, I feel a picture of health, youth and vigour in comparison with my brother John, who is my closest neighbour in Northamptonshire, living in a house just next to mine. Firstly, he is 86, 12 years older than me. Secondly, he suffers not only from diabetes but also from Parkinson’s Disease and various other lesser ailments. While I take five pills a day, he takes more than four times as many. And he is visited by a steady stream of health professionals — carers, physiotherapists, yoga teachers, chiropodists, audiologists, and so on. His pills alone are costing the NHS a fortune. Talking of which, does anyone really need to take quite so many medicines, especially as each comes with a list of possible side effects that often sound even more alarming than the diseases they are supposed to cure?
There is a treatment for Parkinson’s called Neupro (not a pill but a patch you stick on your arm) that has an enormous list of side effects, a list so long and comprehensive that it would appear to clear its manufacturers of responsibility for any misfortune that might befall you. Its ‘common side effects’ include hallucinations, vomiting, vertigo, palpitations, hiccups, sweating, itching, swelling of legs, tiredness and falling over. Among its ‘uncommon side effects’ are ‘falling asleep suddenly without warning’, ‘abnormal thinking about reality’, and ‘increased sex drive’ together with ‘an inability to resist the impulse to perform an action that is harmful involving excessive gambling and repetitive meaningless actions’. The ‘increased sex drive’ comes, unfortunately, with the risk you could be ‘unable to achieve or maintain an erection’.
These side effects compare unfavourably with the symptoms of Parkinson’s that John actually has. These affect his mobility — he finds it hard getting out of a chair, and his walk is a kind of anxious shuffle — but his mind and his memory are in excellent shape, he reads copiously, and his morale is a great deal better than it would be if he had hallucinations, vertigo, hiccups or whatever. In fact, he seems rather cheerful. It is often assumed that the old must be depressed, but research carried out both here and in America has found that the old are generally happier than the young. It has discovered that people for whom death looms close are more satisfied with their lives and less prone to black moods than those for whom life seems to stretch out for ever in front of them.
Still, as you get older, you find yourself spending more and more time on maintenance, as with an old car. I am already beginning to find it so. My diary entries consist increasingly of medical consultations, examinations and tests of various kinds. In the end, the diary will probably contain nothing else. But this isn’t too dreadful a prospect, for my own state of health could easily become a matter of consuming interest — and it would certainly be better to be interested in that than in nothing at all. Nevertheless, as Bette Davis so neatly put it, ‘Old age ain’t no place for sissies.’