John Simpson: “It’s pretty dreadful to watch people losing their grip on themselves”

The presenter of When I Get Older confronts Alzheimer's and ageing in the BBC1 series

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“You’ve got to listen to this,” said a colleague of mine, as we sat in our production office at the BBC. It was June 1967; I was 22, he was a year older. We weren’t allowed to play pop records on the office turntable – this was, after all, BBC News, and it took itself very seriously. But it was a momentous occasion: my colleague had just bought The Beatles brand-new, long-awaited Sgt Pepper album. He slipped the disc out of its famous cover, and the lilting, slightly reedy voice came from the loudspeaker: “When I get older, losin’ my hair, Many years from now…”

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Now, a long career, two marriages, three children and six grandchildren later, I’m appearing in a documentary series called When I Get Older. And, hard though it would have been for my 22-year-old self to have believed it, I’m still alive, still rushing round the world, still enjoying myself. Against all probability I have a son aged six. Attitudes have changed, of course. Being 65 now is what being 55 seemed like back in 1967. If your health holds up, you ought to be able to keep active and involved until your 80s.

I‘m one of four who appear in the series. The others are Gloria Hunniford, whom I first knew when she was a beautiful, feisty young journalist in Belfast during the Troubles; Lesley Joseph, who famously played Dorien Green in the sitcom Birds of a Feather, and Tony Robinson, famous as Baldrick, but nowadays the face of social history and archaeology on British television. (Apart from Doctor Who and maybe me, Tony is my son Rafe’s favourite character on the box.)

I suspect the others share my amazement that being in our 60s has changed us so little. Back in 1967 we thought that people of 65 had one foot in the grave and the other on a banana skin. Nowadays, if someone dies in their 60s it’s regarded as unusual, and the press feels obliged to provide some explanation. It sometimes seems to me as though I was walking past one of those theatrical costumiers they used to have in Shaftesbury Avenue in central London, when someone grabbed me, forced me into a chair and made me up to look like an old man.

Each of the four presenters of When I Get Older is still as active as we’ve always been. Gloria raises money for charity, catches villains and dodgy traders for television programmes, and keeps alive the memory of her lovely daughter, Caron. When Lesley isn’t appearing on television she’s on the stage somewhere, her clever, unconventional humour delighting the audience. Tony is forever running between muddy archaeological trenches or examining bits of pottery in a race against television time. I still hop on planes to nasty places, and recently spent 24 hours in a smelly Syrian prison after being caught sneaking into the country illegally.

That might not sound much like luck, but the fact is that all four of us are tremendously lucky, and we would all admit it. But suppose you aren’t able to keep on working, or perhaps haven’t had a job for a long time? Suppose you’re all alone in the world, your family dead or far away? Suppose you’re the prisoner of some disease, trapped in your house or your bedroom? Suppose the worries and burdens, or the lack of cash, are just too heavy for you to be able to get out and be active?

I suspect that each of the four of us agreed to take part in the series because we knew that we weren’t entirely typical; and perhaps the others privately felt, as I did, that there was a bit of crusading to do here – persuading the elderly that they don’t have to be old until they want to be; and the young not to write off the elderly just yet.

The filming wasn’t easy. In the first programme, we had to stay with elderly folk who lived at home, but had a problem of some kind. The other three made a wonderful difference to the lives of the people they were with. I was less effective. My charge was a lovely, but cantankerous lady who lived on her own and only really wanted to watch wrestling on television and see her children and grandchildren from time to time; my efforts to get her out weren’t particularly effective. But she was great to sit with and listen to, so maybe I helped a bit.

Inevitably, a programme like this makes you think about what sort of person you yourself will be when you are, say 88 rather than 65. Will I be broken down and self-obsessed and bad-tempered, I wonder? Well, of course, why change the habits of a lifetime? But, in fact, spending so much time thinking about the subject has shown me that it mostly depends on the person you have always been. Having done this filming has definitely made me much less frightened of getting old and dying. If only you have the ability and the freedom to manage the way you live, I now realise, even your last days can be spent in peace and harmony.

I was really nervous about the second episode, yet it turned out to be an inspiration. I spent a week in a home for people suffering from Alzheimer’s, though whatever I’d thought about it beforehand turned out to be wrong. The place was superbly run and staffed by loving and caring people. Don’t forget, I’m a journalist; but there were no dark corners in the home I went to.

Still, it’s pretty dreadful to watch people losing their grip on themselves and their past life. I listened in tears to a beautiful former actress who sang me a song, then sang it immediately again because she had forgotten what had happened the moment before. I found a lovely old lady wandering round on her own crying quietly to herself because she couldn’t find the way out to go home to her parents. When I left, a gentle old man clasped my hand in both of his and begged me not to go.

But the most enduring memory for me was of a busy man with an important and demanding job, who came for two hours every afternoon of the week to be with his elderly mother. She was pretty far gone, and no longer recognised him. Why do you still come, I asked? “She gave me everything,” he said simply. “I’m not going to leave her now.”

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When I Get Older starts tonight at 9pm on BBC1