The Independent Christmas Appeal: My day-long ordeal as a 75-year-old

Jack O'Sullivan
Monday 21 December 1998 00:02

I THOUGHT, the morning after the Christmas office party, that I knew what it was like to be 75.But that was before I was given an old age makeover, designed by gerontologists.

In a few moments, using cheap and easily available materials, they took me, a 37-year-old man, and transformed me into a vulnerable, isolated old person, fumbling at the simplest of tasks.

For any man, hoping not to turn into his father, it was a depressing experience. It left me feeling that there is no escape from that fate. But it was also illuminating. I understood a little better what life is like for my dad. I'll be less critical in future.

We started with the eyes. Anne Parr, from Age Concern, which supplies the ageing kits, fitted me with goggles, which gave me tunnel vision. It is, she said, a common handicap, springing from high blood pressure or a stroke.

To this she added a weighted strap around my right wrist, simulating loss of muscle strength and another around my left ankle as though, after a stroke, that side had become slightly leaden.

A double pair of surgical gloves helped me to appreciate a diminished sense of touch that comes with age as well as making my joints stiffen as the gloves warmed up.

And the final element was ear plugs. "From 25," explained Ms Parr, "there is a slight loss of pitch and tone, but it is so gradual that you don't notice it." I certainly noticed the ear plugs. It was not just that conversation around me was muffled. I felt cut off from Ms Parrand our photographer as I caught snippets of the conversation about as well as if I was lying head down in the bath. And, as I withdrew, lost in concentrating on what was going on, they seemed to ignore me, like some old person, passive, in the corner.

We ventured out. The plan was to test myself on Oxford Street and buy a dressing gown, my Christmas present for my dad, who is 78. I thought, if I could step into his skin for a few hours, perhaps I might also choose his attire as well.

It was frightening to step out, like the first time you let go of the side at a swimming pool.

The light seemed so bright, a complaint that many older people have, explained Ms Parr, which is why so many wear shaded glasses. And I couldn't tell immediately where either she or the photographer was, lost in the melee around me. The combination of poor vision and muffled hearing made the world seem unsafe. Edging on to a zebra crossing was an act of faith. I began to understand why older people stay in their homes, take refuge in familiarity and how brave those are who boldly carry on with the busy life I take for granted.

I also gained a glimpse behind those grim old faces you sometimes see walking purposefully, head down, along the street, oblivious to all around them. I had always assumed that illness, grief or simply fear of death had etched such a humourless expression on some faces.

But there is another factor - determination. When you cannot hear or see properly and your limbs don't seem to co- ordinate quite as they should, you become single-minded. I found myself staring at the pavement, making sure that I didn't trip. There was no time to window-shop, admire the crispness of the day, look at the Christmas lights or flirt with a beautiful woman.

I know London's Tube stations well and travel on them daily. Yet that grim determination also seemed necessary to counter a sense of disorientation, as I searched for the right escalator, as I was jostled by rushing younger people. Even finding the right money for the fare was a problem, as my gloved hands couldn't distinguish the coins in my pocket. Had I just dropped a tenner on the ground? I wondered, peering around my feet like Mr Magoo.

Oxford Street was a blur and staring into shop windows was too much trouble. The department stores where I hoped to buy the dressing gown seemed vast and mysterious as I searched for some indication of where the men's clothing department was (I now know why my dad just sends cheques at Christmas).

Fortunately, Ms Parr was there to guide me through the hubbub, as I grew increasingly into one of those apparently passive, dependent, elderly people who seem to have handed over their lives to a more youthful companion.

As it happened, we had wasted our time. I could not tell, by touch, the difference between a silk dressing gown and a cheap cotton one.

"Can we stop for coffee," I asked, echoing my father's words whenever he goes shopping. The relief of sitting down and becoming orientated was wonderful. Yet as I ate my pastry I had no idea whether I was spilling crumbs down my front and humiliating myself further.

Ms Parr, who uses the "Through Other Eyes" kit on company executives to give them insight into their customers, reassured me that it isn't quite this bad to be infirm. It happens slowly, she said. You adapt gradually.

But as I took a breather on my way home and chatted to Alan Burley, 73, on a day trip to Oxford Street from Hull, I could only admire his courage and determination. "You're a hero," I told him.

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