Review: About Time - Growing old disgracefully

Irma Kurtz arrives at a positive view of ageing by squarely facing up to its negative aspects and advising: stay busy

By Julia Neuberger, April 2, 2009
Irma Kurtz:  gets to grips with the emotions of ageing, the highs and lows, the  new as well as the old

Irma Kurtz: gets to grips with the emotions of ageing, the highs and lows, the new as well as the old

By Irma Kurtz
John Murray, £16.99

‘Before grey hair you shall stand up,” our Torah tells us. Respect for the old is deeply ingrained in Jewish thought, and our sense of communal obligation towards our old and frail is strongly felt across our community. And yet, despite the homes we support, the volunteers we involve and the activities we provide, I often think we have failed, in some quite profound way, to get to grips with the emotions of ageing.

By contrast, Irma Kurtz has done just that in About Time, from her father — who used to say after 60 that “This getting old is murder” — to her own worry when spending time with a younger friend that she might be “losing it” — “… have I repeated myself? Are my shoulders slumping? Has my back begun to hump? Have I lost the thread? Run out of steam? Have I crossed wonky old wires?”

She concludes that she is not yet a burden to her friends but that, as she grows more decrepit, younger friends will fall away and finally she will be left “in big communities, with the occasional visit from my busy offspring, strangers and a friend or two”.

But there is celebration here, too, about being a grandmother, which she describes as a newfound love affair, being needed and adored, with the skills to do things parents never do and tell the scary stories parents never tell. And she celebrates the views of Raymond Tallis, professor of geriatric medicine, who truly believes that old age can be a time of liberation: no children, time to do the things you want to do, provided you have enough money.

Kurtz’s interview with John Madden, a GP, makes the point: “As long as you have curiosity and vitality, and you do not grow distant and grumpy, you will continue to make friends, probably younger than you.”

Inherent in all she says, along with her interviewees, there is an underlying message. Sadness is part of ageing, as is physical degeneration. We do it at different rates, but unless we die young, we all will surely experience degeneration. As you get older, there is much to accept about what you will not do again or ever. But there is also a duty to be doing — keep busy, be needed.

It may be grandparenting, the ultimate “being needed” when younger parents are out at work. It may be paid employment or volunteering. But spending the day in front of the TV leads to depression, bad when you are young, deadly as you get old.

The book ends with Kurtz looking at the aurora borealis in Alaska, a new experience, while she reflects on the past always welling up inside her. Getting old combines an appetite for the new, at best, with a conscious savouring of memory, regrets as well as joy.

But it is no easy road, and Irma Kurtz combines rejoicing in much of it with warnings. And we had better listen to her, before we, too, fail to age well, and disgracefully.

Julia Neuberger’s books include ‘Not Dead Yet: A Manifesto for Old Age’

Last updated: 3:16pm, February 18 2011