Age cannot wither them

The over-50s aren't going to shuffle into retirement - they're flying.
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The Independent Culture
SEVENTY-FOUR-year-old Charles Henley prepares to fall 4,000ft out of an aircraft above the Kent countryside. He slides over to an instructor, who makes a last check on his parachute, rip cord and harness. After the all-clear is given, he is free-falling for five seconds before the chute opens and he is sailing gently down to earth.

"I get a buzz every time," beams Henley, feet planted firmly on solid ground. Though he hates to admit to the eccentricity of his ways, he is the bane of many wives who hope their husbands in their thirties will one day "mature" out of what they perceive to be a childish and dangerous pursuit.

Henley has no intention of quitting: "One of the things about being up there is seeing fields, and the houses. It is just so peaceful." And by no means is he alone. It was revealed recently that Betty Boothroyd, the as-yet unretired Speaker of the House of Commons, 68, enjoys paragliding while on holiday in Cyprus. It appears that there were many senior citizens cresting the waves of Britannia long before it was the cool thing to do.

Take the case of 81-year-old Arthur Wheeling from Worthing, West Sussex. He hit the retirement age of 65 in 1981, and while his children might have hoped that he would apply for membership at his local bingo hall, Wheeler had other plans. After a 19-year absence from the professional motorcycle racing circuit, he donned his biking leathers, jumped on his 1954 red Motoguzzi, and astonished spectators by beating the rest of the field of 40 younger riders in the 250cc category. 0"People think that, once you are over 21, you are on a slippery slope down. The general public don't have a clue. Once you have reached retirement age, they don't want to know you." In a defiant voice, he adds: "Younger people should come onto the back of my bike. I'll show them a thing or two."

He most certainly has. He has formed the habit of beating men more than 30 years his junior since his comeback. He has been in the top five positions in 23 out of 33 races, and he is preparing to compete in a national motorcycle meet in Belgium later this month.

So what accounts for the sudden fizz of Britain's estimated 18.5 million people over the age of 50? For one thing, it is not just Sanatogen pills that are making them " feel all right". According to an Age Concern spokesman, the current generation of senior citizens are in robust health, thanks in part to the National Health Service, which had its Golden Jubilee last month.

Another reason the survey noted was that the transformation of the workplace, the introduction of labour-saving devices, and the advent of electronic banking have all forced people to take early retirement: "At one time, people had just 15 years of their life left once they retired - now they can have 30 years to look forward to. Such a long period of time has made people wonder what to do with it," said the spokesman.

Figures released from the 1995 Census show that it is men who have more leisure time. In 1975, 84 per cent of all men were economically active in the age range of 60-64, while in 1995, the figure dropped to 50 per cent. In contrast, about 40 per cent of older women have remained in employment since 1975 to 1995, according to a survey conducted by Third Age Challenge in 1995.

Charles Henley, who retired in 1989, says that, although he was sad to leave his job looking after mentally-handicapped people, he was glad that the time had approached to "start living". And he adds: "I still find I haven't got time to do other things yet."

Ironically, the very technology that has provided Senior Citizens with ample leisure time is being used to maximum effect. "Travel has been made easier by the aeroplane, which has made the world a lot smaller. When I was young, I could only go on holiday for two weeks - now we can spend longer abroad," says Arthur Wheeling, who flew to New Zealand to compete in a Handicap Race in Pukekohe last February. Needless to say, he came first.

One company that has benefited from the wanderlust of the elderly is Saga. It provides leisure, financial and insurance services to the over- 50s. According to its spokeswoman, Frances Liddard, the company, which provides 250,000 holidays a year, has seen the trebling of its long-haul holidays over the past three years.

And, from Liddard's account, Senior Citizens are not beach bums. "The clients that we are booking now are demanding more adventurous holidays - which include elephant rides, river-rafting in Chiangmai, Thailand, under-sea walking in Mauritius and parascending in the Canaries," says Liddard.

At first glance, it might appear that grey power has much to do with the influence of the grey pound, as senior citizens take what Liddard calls "The holiday of a lifetime" once they have received their pension. But, according to figures published by the Department of Social Security in 1977, the number of pensioners with an occupational pension has risen by just 10 per cent, from 15 per cent in 1974 to 25 per cent in 1995. The same government figures reveal that the numbers of pensioners claiming state benefit has remained at around 50 per cent since 1974.

Robert Relf relies heavily on his state pension to continue to lead a daredevil life. This Thursday, Relf will celebrate his 74th birthday by jumping from the world's highest (550ft) bungee-jump point in Interlaken, Switzerland. "Bungee jumping is an expensive hobby, but I do it because of the element of danger and uncertainty. I still get butterflies like I did when I took my first jump, four years ago," says Relf.

Over the the last four years, Relf has made 40 jumps, much to the agony of his four grown children. "They all think I am mad - they would not even consider doing what I do", says the former bus-driver from Birchington, Kent.

He adds: "My two sons and two daughters say I should take up bingo and ballroom dancing, but that does not appeal to me."

Relf believes the active life has enabled him to have a long life: "A lot of my workmates have just faded away, by sitting at home watching Scooby-Doo. If you are active, you are likely to prolong your life."