This is (Almost) 95: Retired Engineer Derrick Ratcliffe Responds to The Oldster Magazine Questionnaire
"My mother, brother and one of my sisters all reached 96 before they died and I, being the youngest in the family, would like to live the longest before I join them."
From the time I was 10, I’ve been obsessed with what it means to grow older. I’m curious about what it means to others, of all ages, and so I invite them to take “The Oldster Magazine Questionnaire.”
Here, retired engineer Derrick Ratcliffe. - Sari Botton
How old are you?
I’m approaching 95 years of age. February 21st, I’ll hit the mark and I ponder how it will be. My mother, brother and one of my sisters all reached 96 before they died and I, being the youngest in the family, would like to live the longest before I join them. My longest and dearest friend lost his wife, eldest daughter, and brother-in-law in a short span of less than three years and he wished to die. His wish was realized earlier this year when I found him dead from a stroke. I have no wish to die but at the same time, I don’t mind, as long as I exceed my family.
Is there another age you associate with yourself in your mind? If so, what is it? And why, do you think?
Not really. I’m fortunate to be a healthy 95. Not that that means I can run a hundred yards in ten seconds but I still exercise: running on the spot, abdominals, and push-ups. When I golf, I think of myself as younger and swing hard to hit the ball—but it doesn’t go far. So, I still experiment with ball/feet position to get better.
I have no wish to die but at the same time, I don’t mind, as long as I exceed my family.
Do you feel old for your age? Young for your age? Just right? Are you in step with your peers?
I don’t think of myself as old, but I don’t think of myself as anything other than 95. Sometimes things happen that make me realize I can’t do the things I did when I was couple of years younger. Stepping down or over something and walking more than a mile brings the realization that I need a cane (though that doesn’t mean I use one…) or someone’s arm. That’s something that’s happened in the last year and it makes me angry.
In the company of younger people, I know I’m older and adjust my hearing aids to keep up with the conversation. So far, it hasn’t got to the point where they treat me like an old dodderer. Fortunately, my eyesight is still good enough for me to continue driving and I do enjoy driving fast on the highways or negotiating a road with a lot of curves.
Sometimes I reminisce about being younger. I grew up in Greater London during the War and when I was 12 was evacuated to Worchester while my parents stayed in London and my three older siblings were all a part of the war effort. It was such a change from Dagenham which was a working-class area full of estates (government housing) and factories subject to a lot of bombing. Worchester was a semi-rural area with fields and a river, middle class with nicer homes. Living there, you almost didn’t know there was a war on unless you had family members in the armed services. Whilst there, my family home was bombed though luckily no one was hurt. I missed my family but kept busy with a version of school, so many of the teachers were overseas, picking hops for the war effort and, one day, pinching bits of a downed German Heinkel until the Home Guard chased me away.
In the company of younger people, I know I’m older and adjust my hearing aids to keep up with the conversation. So far, it hasn’t got to the point where they treat me like an old dodderer.
When I was 16, I returned to Dagenham and started an apprenticeship at Briggs, which in peacetime made bodies for Ford cars and now trucks for the Army. V1s (Doodlebugs) were quite common and each time a warning sounded we’d run for the shelters. At work, we had these cranes that lifted the heavy dies way up in the air, sixty feet or more. To get to the crane’s cabin the operator had to climb a forty-foot steel ladder, then walk twenty-five feet on the gangway. The process of getting up or down took about two and a half minutes, it was too dangerous to rush it. In the time of the Doodlebugs two and a half minutes was an eternity, they came in fast and low, he had to get out faster than the Bug. So, he threw a length of heavy rope, tied in knots eighteen inches apart, over the side; time to get down about ten seconds. If it was a nice day, rather than go to the shelter we watched the direction the Doodlebugs were headed and listened to the explosion and speculated where they’d landed. If people lived in that area they would take off and go home just in case they’d destroyed their house, or their family had been hurt.
Later, V2s became the German weapon of choice and with those there was no warning; they flew too high and fast and there was no way to know where they’d land. But we got used to it. At first, we stopped going to the theaters, but eventually we returned. The bombs would be crashing and banging outside, and you’d think, we’ll if I’m going to be hit, I’m going to be hit. If they fell on my way to work, I’d dash in a covered alley to avoid the shrapnel.
After the war, the firm started their sports teams again and I joined the rugby team, the Brigands, along with my two best mates. Soon enough, along with our wives, we would all emigrate to America together and stay very close. We became each other’s chosen family. I’m the only one still alive of the six of us.
What do you like about being your age?
Age has some compensation in that it does provide more time for reflection, sometimes that’s good, sometimes it’s bad. Most time talking to a loved one who has died brings back good memories, but not always and then you can’t do anything to correct the badness and the feeling of sadness is awful.
It also gets you cut prices at some locations which helps with the budget and a lot of people are more likely to help you if you need aid. Recently, coming back from England, I missed the step on a concrete stairway in the airport and started to fall. A young woman walking up the stairs didn’t hesitate, she jumped forward and caught me and held me till we reached the bottom, yelling at three men at the bottom who were watching, “You men don’t just stand there looking. Come and help!” I wonder if she would have done it if I wasn’t old, but I was very glad she did.
There are many more traps designed to bring about your downfall, but luckily aging also brings about a certain quality of determination that wasn’t required in earlier life and you adjust.
What is difficult about being your age?
There are many things about aging that must be negotiated, things that you did that you did without thinking. Getting into bed it’s surprising how high it is and if you’re lucky enough to have the strength in your legs you have to give a small jump. I suppose I might find out one day I’ll need a step. Getting out of bed, which was once so easy, is now sometimes a bit of a struggle. The blankets and sheets start a morning love affair and don’t want to let go of you. When you struggle free of their embrace and get to the edge of the bed there’s a twenty-foot drop to the floor that you have to negotiate. At last, with both feet on the floor you start swaying but thankfully the door opening to the bathroom provides support and you’re able to reach the toilet and rest awhile. Now it’s shower time and you’re very careful in stepping over the ledge to get in and thankful that you now have grab handles to cling to. Getting dressed requires that you sit down to put on your socks and slippers and pants, going downstairs you're glad there’s a handrail to hold on to. There are many more traps designed to bring about your downfall, but luckily aging also brings about a certain quality of determination that wasn’t required in earlier life and you adjust.
What is surprising about being your age, or different from what you expected, based on what you were told?
I used to enjoy swimming and small boat sailing and later in life kayaking. A few summers ago, I tried paddle boarding for the first time and quite enjoyed that. When the fine weather comes back, I hope to try them all again. Till then I will keep fit with exercise three times a week and clearing snow. I got bored with cleaning the house so now I’m happy that I have good people who do that. I also enjoy going out to dinner and lunch with family and friends of all ages. I volunteer to help with two church activities for people who need help—one every Saturday morning. When I turned 90, I went on my first cruise, followed by two more. And I make sure I return to England every year. This year, I went with my daughter, and we travelled from London to Cornwall to the Scottish Highlands visiting relatives and going on hikes. I’ve also started taking singing lessons.
I suppose I was told this wasn’t possible, that at my age I’d need to be in a nursing home or assisted living, or at least have someone tending to me. But I still live in my home (my wife died almost six years ago), cook all my own meals, garden, volunteer, exercise, drive, travel, spend time with friends and family. And I’m not on any medication. I never have been other than when I underwent radiation for cancer in my 60s. I’m lucky to have had older siblings who also lived robust lives until their deaths, so I had a different sense of what’s possible than what society often wants us to believe. I do, though, spend too much time watching TV and too little reading.
I’ve also started taking singing lessons.
What has aging given you? Taken away from you?
It’s given me more knowledge, but at times lessened common sense. Physical example: Trying to use a paddleboard and falling off every time. Brain example: Trying to negotiate a non-negotiable conversation.
How has getting older affected your sense of yourself, or your identity?
I look back on my life and sometimes think I wasn’t fair with people I love, but I can’t change that now. Looking forward I see opportunities.
What are some age-related milestones you are looking forward to? Or ones you “missed,” and might try to reach later, off-schedule, according to our culture and its expectations?
Driving a car 180 mph.
What has been your favorite age so far, and why? Would you go back to this age if you could?
No favorite age. Many favorite times: Playing rugby; riding my Triumph motorcycle across England with my future wife, Chris; getting married; having children; sailing; family times, Christmas, birthdays and many other occasions. Won’t go back to any without a fight.
I suppose I was told this wasn’t possible, that at my age I’d need to be in a nursing home or assisted living, or at least have someone tending to me. But I still live in my home (my wife died almost six years ago), cook all my own meals, garden, volunteer, exercise, drive, travel, spend time with friends and family.
Is there someone who is older than you, who makes growing older inspiring to you? Who is your aging idol and why?
I’m inspired by my siblings and my parents who fought to have and enjoy a long life. Also, the queen, who is a few months older than I. She does all these admirable things and has to put up with so much fuss and bother and always seems to keep her cool, at least in public.
What aging-related adjustments have you recently made, style-wise, beauty-wise, health-wise?
I practice trying to balance since it’s now easy for me to stumble and fall. Beauty-wise, I continue to shave regularly and clean my teeth. Health-wise, no changes. I eat healthy foods, don’t drink a lot of alcohol, and exercise three times a week.
What’s an aging-related adjustment you refuse to make, and why?
Can’t think of any, maybe when I’m older.
What’s your philosophy on celebrating birthdays as an adult? How do you celebrate yours?
I enjoy going out with my family to celebrate.
Love his attitude. A lot of living a long life is the genetic lottery, but I think attitude also matters. In my own family's case, I find this a bit confusing. My parents were older parents, both college educated at a time when that was rarer. My dad was ten years older than my mom, and in his 40s when I was born. My dad was a realistic optimist with a wonderful sense of humor who took joy in those he loved and in his work and hobbies. He never stopped reading and learning and questioning. He lived to be 89 despite being in a family where everyone close to him—parents and siblings—died in their 50s or 60s. He was mentally alert and physically strong despite heart disease and adult-onset diabetes (my dad was Indigenous, and at higher risk for the disease, which he and my mom worked to control with diet). My mom was also well-read and active with hobbies she loved and a commitment to her community, but she was a pessimist. I think her pessimism came from childhood trauma related to an alcoholic father, but she didn't want to discuss it, so it's difficult to know how she felt. My mom said from the time she was relatively young—in her 50s—that she hoped she didn't live to be too old. I asked her once when she wished she'd died, and she said in her 50s, which would have meant when her children were all in their early twenties, or in the case of my younger sister, still in high school. As she aged, I was her primary caretaker. She was in good health until she was 92 when she got COPD. She died just after she turned 95. When she was ill and hospitalized a few times related to the COPD or as a precautionary measure when her doctor thought something might be wrong, I noticed she wanted to live, but she would continue to say she didn't. She was not the best role model for her three daughters. My dad was my role model. I'm a robust person with no medical issues. I'm young for my age both mentally and physically. The five things that matter most in my opinion are genetics, exercise, diet, attitude, and social connection. Luck plays a role, but so do our choices. When I think about aging. I think about the Dylan lyric, "He not busy being born is busy dying." I try to find my way through to a positive place of joy each day. Some days that is difficult. Thank you for this series. I love the view you provide into other's relationship to life and aging.