The Third Age: Three score years and then?

By 2001, there will be nearly 4.5 million people in Britain over the age of 75. But forget your stereotypes: in the future being old will mean being active, independent and open to new experiences. Rose Shepherd talks to eight men and women setting the pace for the next millennium. Photographs by Nicola Kurtz
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Shirley Grubman often helps out at the London estate agency run by her son-in-law, her daughter and her husband, but at 67, she thought she'd left her career as a model long behind her. Then a fashion writer from `The Independent' approached her in the street, and her picture appeared in the paper. Now she's signed with the agency Models One, and has her photograph in the latest issue of `Vogue'.

"I was on my way to the bank when somebody tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I'd be photographed in some sunglasses. I thought no more about it until Vogue tracked me down, and Models One got on he phone. This may be as far as I get, but it's been exciting, and if it takes off, it'll be fantastic. You must think everything is possible in life. And you've got to stay in touch, to live in the world as it is now. My grand- children keep me young.

I left school at 14, married at 22. When I was first married I was a house model at a couturier's in Grosvenor Square, but I gave it up to look after my daughter. My husband was in wholesale children's wear, and I used to go in and help him. I've always gone into business and been with people. I love people. We don't go out a lot. Perhaps once a week we go to a restaurant. I don't play bridge, I don't like luncheons. I've done charity work, Meals on Wheels and all sorts of things, but I found I couldn't sleep at night, feeling sorry for these people. Deep core, I'm too sympathetic.

This is a rich life, although there are lots of tribulations. You slow down - I've slowed down a lot but you hope there's more things to come. I don't think a lot about age. When I got to 50, I did think, 'My, God, half a century!' And when my first granddaughter was born, I was very excited, but it suddenly hit me, `I'm a grandmother!' I can remember when women went into black when they were widowed, and when they were a grandmother they went down to low heels. My grandmother at my age was an old woman. I'm happy with my age, I can't do anything about it, all I can do is carry on. Today's generation are fantastic, but it's a different world, and we have to shut the door on the old world. You can't live in the past. Whatever happens, tomorrow will come. Life is as good as you make it, and this is as good as it gets."

"Old age will happen to you, as well you know," said an abrasive woman friend, on turning 70. And it will. It happens to all of us - if death doesn't happen first - although most of us just somehow cannot think it. Not that 70 is old these days - or not old old. It is very much not what it used to be. When non-contributory old-age pensions were introduced in 1908 for people over 70 on low incomes and of good moral character, few could hope to reap the benefit for more than a year or two.

In contrast, on current projections, by the year 2001, there will be 1,597,000 men and 2,805,000 women over the age of 75 in the United Kingdom, including 89,000 men and 324,000 women in their nineties. In 1995, in the UK, average life expectancy for males at birth was 74.1, and for women 79.4 respectively - rising, if you reach 80, to 6.6 and 8.5 more years. Simply, more of us are living longer.

The official age of retirement, meanwhile, remains at 65 for men, and at 60 for women (although the 1995 Pensions Act, to be phased in between 2010 and 2020, will see this rise to 65 for everyone), and you don't have to be a genius to figure that after our final day at work, we could have 20, 30 even 40 more years of living to do, and in which to find continuing purpose and meaning.

There have always been stories of phenomenally long-lived individuals. Adam is supposed to have died at age 930. Methuselah made 969. More recently, in Malaysia in 1977, a 40-year-old divorcee was jailed for living out of wedlock with a 117-year-old man, (this, on the good authority of The Sun); in 1978, in Azerbaijan, Medzhid Agavey allegedly made it to 143; and no one can tell how long 106-year-old Moses Beckett of Philadelphia might have lasted, had he not been gunned down by a sniper on his way to his sister's 104th.

In Britain, the custom of sending birthday telegrams to those aged 100, 105, 106 and 107, and so on, was instituted in 1917. Last year, Buckingham Palace was asked to send 3,347 telegrams to British subjects here and overseas, including one for someone's 114th.

Life expectancy averages have been skewed by a fall in infant mortality. More life-threatening diseases can now be treated. But someone's going to have to subsidise those elderly people on low incomes, regardless of their moral character.

The need for government to act has been widely discussed. We all know we're sitting on a demographic time bomb - or not so much on it as in it. But there is also an urgent need in this callow, youth-obsessed age, for society to rethink its attitude to old age, to take a more balanced and more positive view of later life, to realise that people well past retirement age are often fit, passionate about life and beautiful.

True, old age can be wretched. We would not have had to look far to find broken, destitute individuals for whom the retirement years were proving one long struggle. But the country is also teeming with spirited men and women who do not conform to woeful stereotypes.

In talking to eight of them, I felt at times terribly crass, like Lewis Carroll's young man with his fatuous line of questioning ("You are old, Father William ... ") The word "old" is so pejorative these days. But they were courteous and humorous and patient with me.

These people, all past retirement age although not all of the same generation, are from very different backgrounds and live quite different lives. Like the majority of old people, they remain in their own homes and make few demands on the Social Services or NHS. They get by on money earned and inherited, on current income and on reserves they've prudently put by. All said they felt fortunate to be able to afford their comforts, but that health means more than money in the end.

In a sense, they are the fortunate ones, they've stayed the course. And in another, very real sense, they are no closer to death than any of us. Life expectancy statistics are, after all, fraught with anomalies. Did you know that you are more likely to be murdered in your first year of life than in any other? And that young men are particularly good at finding ways of killing themselves.

These old people had lost friends, but haven't we all? Some had cared for partners in their final years, so, yes, there had been sadness, but there were happy memories, too. "As a well-spent day brings happy sleep," said Leonardo da Vinci, "so life well used brings happy death", and so they seem to feel. Most of the eight had long-distance travel plans. All had interests and enthusiasms, and they were all still learning. Gordon Parker, Ken Muir and Anne Constable had taken up painting. Gordon and Ken were quite dissatisfied with their efforts, but Anne was pleased to show me one of hers (not everyone, as she remarked, could boast that they had an original Constable on their wall.)

"Life is worthwhile," insisted Jane Dudley, and so it is. Worthwhile enough for Anne, at 74, to leap on the exercise bike and lose two stone with Weight Watchers. For Ken to return to formal education. For Tom Delaney to get behind the wheel of his Lea Francis. For Nellie Fitch to get out on the tennis court, and for Gordon Parker to sit for five-and-a-half hours in thrall to Gotterdamerung.

Then there is Edmund Kurtz (the grandfather of the photographer of this story). This dashing and amusing man, who will be 90 in December, had been personal cellist to Anna Pavlova, he had known Stravinsky, Ravel, Rachmaninov, Prokoviev. He'd owned a priceless Hausman Stradivari Vioncello, one of only 50, which he loved "almost more than anything else in the world". He had been married more than 60 years to his still-beautiful wife Barbie. He had lived through the Russian Revolution, and through two World Wars.

They had all, in fact, come through World Wars, and some had seen active service. Some had known serious hardship. They had all worked long and diligently. They had learned fortitude.

Old people are a wasted resource in a profligate age. So much experience and wisdom is just left to soak away. Thank goodness, then, for the Open University, which gave Ken an opportunity he had missed at age 18. And for the Third Age Trust - a charitable initiative set up in 1982 - which, with no financial help from government, encourages life-long learning, and draws upon the knowledge, skills and experience of its members to organise study and activity groups in over 360 U3As (Universities of the Third Age) throughout the country. The idea had its roots in France in 1972, and today in the UK there are 75,000 men and women in the "third age" of life - the period after childhood dependence, after full-time employment and parental responsibility - studying one or more of over 150 subjects.

"Oh, let not time deceive you," warned Auden, "you cannot conquer time." No, but you can use it. And perhaps, finally, the quality of life in old age, depends on whether you regard it as the enemy or as a precious friend.

For further information about the University of the Third Age, write to The National Office, U3A, 26 Harrison Street, London WC1H 8JG. Telephone, 0171-837 8838; fax, 0171-837 8845; e-mail:, web site:

Tom Delaney is 87 and lives in London. He worked as an engineer in the motor and aviation industries, and still races the car that his father gave him in 1930. He has been a widower for two years, has five sons, and grandchildren aged between 14 and 25. "I raced the Lea Francis my father bought me up until the war, then parted with it. Some years later, I managed to trace it - to Aden, of all places - and bought it back. I have three of them. I have a BMW for normal use, and I've been around the circuits with it at Silverstone and Goodwood, but it's not as thrilling to drive as the old car. When I get in my Lea Francis and start a race, I still think I'm about 20 years of age.

I'm just off to Spain for a couple of weeks, because I need a break. I moved house a year ago, and I've been trying to sort out a lot of papers. I've got some interesting documents which my father left. He was keen on motor racing. He drove the famous race from Paris to Madrid in 1903. And my son Geoffrey races, and my granddaughter Lucy. She and I both raced in the last meeting of the year at Brooklands a few weeks ago.

I'm taking up golf, I've had three lessons, because I feel I ought to get exercise. And I had another hobby, which was flying, but I let my licence lapse, so I don't pilot myself. I'd love to do a bit of flying. I do occasionally take over when I go up with a friend in a foreign country. But I found the old open planes much more exciting than today's closed cabins of today. Handling them can be tricky, but that's all part of it.

I gave up my engineering business in 1960, but I've got some investment companies, which are easier to run. And the family are always coming to see me, and stay with me. They're great fun.

I do want to get about a bit, to see places I haven't seen, before they all go crazy and start shooting one another. When I went to the Bahamas earlier this year, I flew to New York first on Concorde, which was exciting. There are many things I mean to do yet."

Anne Constable is 74 and lives in Gloucestershire. She worked as a manager for a pharmaceutical company. She has been a widow for seven years, and has a son, a daughter, and three grandchildren. "I've always been an active person, and in retirement I seem to spend my life enjoying myself. When my husband died, obviously, there was a period of sadness and depression. But time has gone by ...

My son lives 10 minutes from here, and my daughter lives in Northamptonshire. She has a 23-year-old; a 21-year-old, and an eight-year-old who calls me his second mummy. We have a family holiday together every year. My son-in-law rents a villa and we all go. Family is very important.

My husband and I both liked travelling, we liked motoring, and they are still a big part of my life. I drive up to London, I've driven in Spain and Portugal, I go anywhere.

My friends and I are all so busy, we say we can't imagine how we ever found the time to do a job. Three nights a week a group of us get together, have a couple of drinks, and play cards. I go to dinner with my son and his wife one week, and they come to me the next. I was at a country and western dance on Saturday night, and on Sunday I was out to lunch with friends. I belong to the Ladies' Circle of the Moose - it's like the Round Table. We have a lot of social activities, and raise a lot of money for charity.

I do all my own decorating, I do my own gardening. I've just built my first wall. I think it will also be my last wall. I might have made it higher if I'd had a cement mixer. As it was, I had to mix it all by hand.

Every week I go into town with a friend. One day we were having our lunch in Sainsbury's in Cheltenham. We had these whacking great big plates of lasagne and chips, and she said, 'I'm thinking of going to Weight Watchers.' Funnily enough, I'd already arranged to go, so I said, 'Right, we start on Monday.' I lost two stone, entered Weight Watcher of the Year, and got through to the finals. I only did it for a joke to start off with, but by the end I was thinking, 'I'm going to win that trip to Jamaica.'

I have a wonderful time. I go to Portugal for six weeks each year, to get away from the winter, and I'm teaching myself Portuguese. Then, a friend and I went to Hungary for two weeks by coach for pounds 139. What you need in this life is a positive attitude and blooming good health."

Jane Dudley, 86, was born in New York, and started dancing at six. She helped to set up The Place dance school in London and is now involved in choreography and directing as well as giving occasional master classes. Her late husband was a documentary film-maker. Her son also makes films.

"I get up at eight every day, and it's always a struggle. Bed seems nice and warm. Three days a week, I do Pilates. It keeps you not only limber, but strong. I wouldn't be anywhere near as capable as moving around without the work I've had. I've had hip operations, a new knee, and I was really wobbly.

Am I still dancing? Well, let's say I'm still moving. I've done several performances, but they've been fairly confined. I was touring with Tales from the Citadel in 1997, when somebody rang to ask if I was the oldest dancer in the world. I said I didn't think so. There are older dancers in other art forms. Indian dancers go on quite a bit.

The dancers I've brought up have all gone on to other things. They're in companies, they're in opera, some are choreographing. I keep track of what's going on in the dance world here. Dance is the most important of my interests, but I also like theatre, film, art. If you don't have interests, it can be very pathetic to get older. But I say to myself that life is worthwhile. When I find myself getting blue or depressed, I kick myself and say, 'You're lucky to be alive and healthy.'

At the moment I'm working on a digital dance programme. You get the material you want filmed first, and that's put on a disk that's stored in a computer, and there's a little mouse that chooses which of the programs you want, and there it is. I'm a total idiot when it comes to computers. I keep saying I'm pre-telephone and motor car.

I would like to do one more dance, choreograph one more piece. I'd like to go on another trip. I hope I can get to Russia to go down the Volga. Travel gets harder as you get older, but I miss it."

Gordon Parker is 76 and lives in Surrey. He worked for BP for 33 years, spent 16 years in the Middle East, and has travelled extensively. After retiring he went back to work part-time for Mobil for five years. He has been a widower for 10 years, and has two daughters and two sons. "I was very lucky with my job. It took me all over the world. So my swansong with Mobil - five years around the Gulf, which was my old stamping ground - was a gentle let-down. Now I go away four or five times a year. In the past 12 months, I've been to France, Canada, Alaska and the Yukon, then Germany and back again to the States. But there are many places in the world I haven't seen and am interested in doing - Japan, for instance. And I haven't seen much of South America.

I've got a house, I've got a garden which I tend reluctantly. Before my wife died, I don't think I knew how to cook an egg. Now, when the whole family comes, I'll cook for nine or 10. I have everything timed. I have bells ringing, alarms set so I don't forget to put the spuds on. And they're all sitting around, hooting and laughing, telling dirty jokes and distracting me. But cooking just for one can be an awful drag. Often I'll go and have a pub lunch. A pal and I do a 10-mile walk every week, rain or shine, in the Surrey hills, starting at a pub and finishing at a pub. Another friend was with the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve so I have a slap-up curry lunch with him on HMS President three or four times a year.

I have military history and aviation history classes once a month, and painting classes once a week, organised by the University of the Third Age. I play bowls four times a week or more. In the past 12 months I've been to 45 operas, ballets, and concerts. And I'm a friend of anything. A friend of Covent Garden, a friend of the Albert Hall. As a Friend of Covent Garden and the ENO, I get the opportunity to go to dress rehearsals, which are absolutely bang on. I go to the cinema three or four times a year. I went last night to see Saving Private Ryan. I wouldn't bother to see it again, but I saw The Horse Whisperer and The English Patient twice. I hardly watch television. I gave up Coronation Street once it went to four times a week and that lovely little girl Raquel left. Once Raquel had gone, so had my interest."

Ken Muir was in the Signals Corps during the war, and was awarded an MBE. He worked in the gas industry, lives in Wales, is married, and has two daughters and a granddaughter. This year he was awarded a degree in social science from the Open University, just in time for his 80th birthday.

"I retired at 65, and within about three months I was fed up with it. I went from being a very, very busy man, to walking down to pick up my newspaper, meeting all these elderly gentlemen complaining about the weather. There was this awful feeling of being useless, so I went back to work part-time until I was 70.

When I was 65, my wife and I decided our interests should diverge slightly, so that if anything happened to one or other of us, we'd have different sets of friends, rather than be reminded all the time of the other's passing. She took up bowls, and still goes twice a week, despite having Parkinson's disease. We've been determined not to lie down and give up. Another thing we did was to learn to swim. The pair of us joined a class, found ourselves among all these kids.

I didn't set out wanting a degree, I just wanted to become more aware. All my life I'd felt frustrated that I hadn't had time to understand the things that were going on around me. I'm not a particularly bright student, but I'd lived through the era of Churchill, the creation of the welfare state. The tutors were magnificent, and often one would say, `Look, Ken, you probably know more than I do about this. You tell them.' It gave me an opportunity to show that old people aren't just dullards.

Our life is fuller than it's ever been. I've got two wonderful daughters, and a glorious little granddaughter who is six. We spend as much time as we can with family and friends. To me this is a special age, an age of opportunity, when I can do what I want to do, at my own speed. I read a lot. Every Christmas, every birthday, my daughters give me books. The only person I get socks from is my granddaughter. Wallace and Gromit socks."

Nellie Fitch is 85 and lives on the Kent coast. She worked in a wages department, retired at 70, and has been a widow for eight years. She is vice-president of the local tennis club, and still plays to win.

"My husband was ill for a long time, so he used to say, 'Don't you give anything up.' He didn't want me to sit in. I haven't any children, unfortunately, but my friends are marvellous. I don't know what I would have done without the club, to tell the truth. I try to go twice a week, but it's difficult because I can't drive now. I failed an eye test, and the car fell to pieces at the same time, so it was meant to be. Still, I can't get used to it. Your life is quite different when you can't drive.

Three afternoons I go out and play whist, to keep my brain going. And once a month we go to some friends and have what we call a 'Sod it!' evening. We play a version of rummy, which we christened 'Sod it!'. That's a laugh. Laughing is very good for you. I'm not a miserable person. I can laugh at myself, and call myself names. Attitude is very important. You've got to feel young. It's no good saying you can't do this, you can't do that, because it's surprising what you can do. I have to watch what I eat, and have to budget, but I do enjoy food, I never scrimp on that. I cook a midday meal every day, and if I want a piece of steak, I'll have it. I'm always thinking about food. On the tennis court I'm thinking, 'What shall I have for lunch?'

I don't mind being on my own, on the whole, though I have friends down to stay when they can come. I do my own housework, my own gardening. I mow the lawn and grow a few vegetables. I'm happy in my home. I've got a lovely conservatory, and a little suntrap corner, and I'm right next to the field so there's nobody overlooking me. I was very fortunate to have my husband till he was 80. We had our golden wedding the year before he died. Even now I talk to him. 'You ought to be here to do this or that.' I grumble at him for not being with me, but I don't live in the past. I don't do much as vice-president of the club. It's more of a courtesy title, because I was always down there, and did the teas. I do now. If they have anything on, I'll make cakes. I can still run after a ball. The tennis will tell me when it's time to stop."

Edmund Kurtz was born in St Petersburg, Russia, in 1908. He now lives in Knightsbridge, London with his Australian wife, Barbie, whom he met and married in 1934, and in Cagnes sur Mer, France, where they spend the summer. He has two sons and five granddaughters. His edition of six Bach suites, transcribed from manuscripts in the hand of Bach's second wife, Anna Magdalena, and published in 1983, is, he believes, as close as possible to definitive, and has now been reprinted four times.

"If I hadn't had anything to do for the past 25 years I would have gone potty. But I haven't wanted to play concerts any more for about the past 10 years, although I'm asked all the time. There is a saying in Russian that giving a concert is like writing your name with a fork on water.

I had a very serious accident in Rome 10 years ago, they gave me only 20 minutes to live, and I was unconscious for a week. Our elder son is one of the top men in the country in diabetes, and the younger is a virologist. They say that my chances of recovery were about one in a thousand, but I still play as well as I ever did.

My edition of Bach is remarkable because I didn't take any notice of the 25 or 30 editions that were published before. I wanted his original manuscript. I didn't find one, because there aren't any, but I used what was found to be the edition which Anna Magdalena copied, that is in her hand. I was almost like Sketchley, cleaning a suit, I cleaned up so many discrepancies. If you find in some cellar in Germany or wherever, a manuscript of Johann-Sebastian, then send it to me, and I'll start again, but I have put it as close to Bach as I possibly could, via Anna Magdalena.

There was a very big reunion in Manchester recently, organised by cellists. I was not invited, but a few thousand cello-playing people went there. And on the invitation was a photograph of the man who was running the competition, with the edition of my Bach. I don't mind that they didn't invite me. They probably think I'm dead.

I came through Communism and Nazism, and losing my roots of Russia, which I never regained, and living in many, many countries, and concertising since I was about 12, 13, until I was 75, and working on my editions ever since. I don't teach because if I do bind myself to teaching, I shall never be able to do anything but teach, but I help young players as much as I can. If they ask me, I will listen to them.

I don't wish to go back to Russia. It breaks my heart to see what they are doing there, but I can't help. Not even the governments of England and America can help so how can I? I don't travel much any more. We go to Australia every year, in the winter. And I work at home in France and here. I work very well there because I can be less disturbed.

I have done quite a lot for the cello in general. Many, many people will admit it; many, many people will not. I have been privileged to meet many great people in my life. To have spoken with them is worth more than money.

There are some people who build richness of life by going to sporting events, or eating too much, or divorcing their husbands or wives. Some people like to show off, to go to night clubs. If you consider that is a pleasure, God bless you. But I am soaked in music. It has an enormous effect on me. Even today, when I listen to Puccini's Tosca, I get a chill down my back.

I would like to publish a few more pieces. Villa-Lobos, who was probably about the greatest South American composer, gave me his collection of eight cello works. I've got them all here. I don't think you can buy them any more, because Brazilians are not very tidy people and they probably never reprinted them, so I suggested it to my publisher, and they were thrilled, but we realised that copyright would not allow it.

A lot of people have suggested that I write a book. The first was Mr Deutsch, the publisher, whom I met at a party. He wanted my life, and a book about conductors, because I have very strong ideas about conductors, but my dear wife thought I would go to jail in no time. And I love to talk to people, because for me to talk is just like for a dancer to dance, but I don't think I would like to write about myself.I'm sure my life will be forgotten pretty soon after I'm no more, but my edition will last a very long time"