The Longevity Forum Heroes series features interviews with inspiring individuals who are shifting old paradigms and shaping our thinking on longevity. Dafina Grapci-Penney spoke with Nicholas Parsons CBE, English broadcaster still professionally active in his 90s.
What is the secret to your personal and professional longevity?
I do not have any answers or secrets, except that I have always assumed that I must be grateful for the genes that I have inherited from my parents. They lived until they were in their eighties. Would they have lived longer if we had the medical knowledge that we have today, I do not know.
Another important contributing factor to longevity is to keep going. You have to keep using your brain and the more you use it and treat it as a muscle, the more likely you are to live longer. Scientists have proved that the more you use your grey matter, the more it does have an impact on your physical health. I am using my brain all the time because I am still working professionally. I do get more tired from it than before, and sometimes I take a day to recover, but I can do it. I do a one man show around the country, it is two hours on my own talking and making them laugh. It is a thing called adrenaline, I can carry on, talk, entertain, be amusing, on song as they say professionally.
Is there more that could be done to encourage individuals to think that way, and to see the benefits of staying mentally engaged?
Definitely. We hear stories of people who retire in their sixties, they have had the same routine which has kept them going and maybe they have enjoyed it all. But sometimes when that routine stops, and people have no other interests, they slowly fade away. There are times when I would like to lie there and do nothing. Sometimes my wonderful wife brings me a cup of tea and the Sunday papers. There is so much to read these days, you could stay in bed all day and you still would not get through them all completely. People need an incentive to get up – such as work or hobbies. I am lucky that I am in a profession where if you can do it, the opportunities are there. Show business is the toughest business in the world, you are only as good as your last job. You have to be on song because only if it works well will they ask you again.
There are exceptions, however. My agent secured me a lovely part in one of the television soaps. I was really looking forward to doing it – it was a gem of a cameo, but then they suddenly said we cannot employ him because he is over 90 years of age, and they were not permitted by their insurers. We all know people well under 90 who might pass out on stage, who could not do it. For me personally it was disappointing, and it was wrong. It was purely arbitrary. You are using your brain to keep going and here is an insurance organisation which has written the rules which prevent you from working. This should be addressed. One solution could be to have medical assurances that he/she is sufficiently strong and healthy to fulfill the engagement. There should not be an arbitrary cut-off point.
As people live longer, for the first time ever, we may have multiple generations living together at the same time which, if not handled correctly, could cause inter-generational tensions. What are your views on this?
As people get older and more fragile, they can be a huge burden and responsibility on their families. While people may earn a good wage, they also pay very high taxes. My father was a doctor, a GP, and yet he could afford to send his children to private school, he could employ people to help in the house, but nowadays very few people can afford that. This pattern of living has changed. People in a similar profession might be earning well, but they do not have the resources to do all that my parents and their grandparents did. Our society has changed so dramatically in every respect. One has to consider the responsibility on the members of the family to help and look after and provide for their elderly relatives. They have to keep earning well and become semi-carers. They may reach retirement age themselves and they have an elderly parent who they have to look after. That is a very serious problem today.
What could be done to help alleviate these issues?
The National Health Service is absolutely marvelous – I had the flu recently and they were wonderful. It is marvelous that the government is putting more money into it. But you have to make sure that the money goes to the right areas.
As people get older, more people will need to have care. There should be enough money to run good care homes for elderly people who run out of income and cannot afford to pay anymore, and their children cannot afford to pay. This is an important subject to address when it comes to longevity. The state should find a way to subsidise care homes, because some of them are wonderful. I visited a state care home recently and it was not a happy place. The staff were wonderful, but they did not have the time to give that extra care. There was an individual there who was severely handicapped, and they put the food in front of them, but they could not get it to their mouth. They came back, gave them a couple of mouthfuls, and then they took it away.
Loneliness is another issue as we grow older.
Yes, my friend Esther Rantzen started this wonderful organisation called The Silver Line. It is incredible how many elderly lonely people there are. They may have televisions, but they need people whom they can talk to. They need human interaction. They are elderly, they are fragile, mentally not as strong as before, and this is a serious problem. The Silver Line is wonderful – they pick up the phone and they speak to a human voice and they have a conversation. They feel better for it, and it is doing wonders, but this is a charity – it should be a government organisation. Congratulations to Esther for recognising that the problem existed. This is a modern problem.
Do you have any advice for young people who are at the beginning of their lives and are not thinking about the implications of longer lives?
I never thought about getting old when I was young. It is only now that I am old that I am aware of it because of the limitations of what I can do. I try and pace myself accordingly. When you are young you never think that you will get old – you see an old person and you think thank goodness I am not like that, but one day you may be like that. With people living longer and more care for the elderly needed, the mission of The Longevity Forum becomes critical in raising awareness of the problem. Medical science has advances so much. The knowledge we are acquiring is such that it helping people stay alive for longer.
I was hosting my programme ‘Just a Minute’ when some reference was being made to age, and I said to my dear friend Paul Merton, “in my brain I feel many years younger than my age, but in my legs I certainly feel my age.” Paul wittily responded, “it is a good thing it is not the other way round. Otherwise you could go on a good long walk and not know where you were.” There is a wonderful truth in that touch of humour. If you neglect your body and your mind, you deteriorate. I walk some distance every day. Sometimes I walk and I find it boring, so I say to myself “this is doing me good.”
Do you plan to perform at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe again?
They do want me back. People look through the brochure and they see so many shows listed, over 2,000 – and then they see a name they recognise and they say ‘he was good last year’. I did not have an empty seat for all of my run. When I first started doing the show called ‘The Nicholas Parsons Happy Hour’ I did a three-week run, then I cut it down to two and a half weeks, then two weeks. Now it is ten days. I am in a profession where if you enjoy your work it gives you tremendous satisfaction. There is nothing more satisfying than going out and facing lots of strangers and being able to make them laugh.
A friend said to me recently about “Just a Minute’ you have been doing that show for 50 years. You must be on autopilot. I said if I were on autopilot, the show would be dead by now. As the producer welcomes the audience and introduces the show, I wait behind the curtain. I get a bit tense, a bit nervous – if you do not get nervous you are in the wrong profession. Unconsciously I am saying to myself I hope we can do it again – it has worked before, but will it work again. He then introduces me, I go on stage and greet the audience. The adrenaline clicks in, Mr. Show business takes over. The audience claps, the adrenaline pumps and then I am on my own.
I have a job which I enjoy immensely, and it is a very successful show, but it requires so much mental agility that it is helping me keep younger than I am. What a lucky man I am.
And we are lucky to have you. Thank you very much for speaking with me today.