Meet East Anglia’s age-defying ‘seenagers’

Norfolk's Eileen Ash featured on ITV show 100-Year-Old Driving School in September.
Photo: ITV.

Norfolk's Eileen Ash featured on ITV show 100-Year-Old Driving School in September. Photo: ITV. - Credit: ITV

None of us likes the prospect of growing old but in reality it’s something all of us hope we’ll get the chance to do.

Jenny Holland takes to the skies for a charity wing walk.
Photo: Norfolk and Norwich University Hos

Jenny Holland takes to the skies for a charity wing walk. Photo: Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, contributed. - Credit: Archant

And these days, more of us are.

According to the Office for National Statistics around one in eight of the UK’s 65 million people (that’s 8.45 million of us) is projected to live to 100.

But clocking up a century is something most of us would only want to achieve if we had quality of life too. It’s not age itself that is the problem but the chronic illnesses that often go with it.

While no-one is guaranteed good health as they age, perhaps the best chance we’ve got of achieving it (barring the discovery of a wonder drug) is by staying active, positive, open-minded, socially connected and adopting a use it or lose it attitude when it comes to our minds and bodies.

Ex Wimbledon finalist Christine Janes still coaches tennis and plays golf as well as enjoying sea sw

Ex Wimbledon finalist Christine Janes still coaches tennis and plays golf as well as enjoying sea swimming. Photo: Sarah Lucy Brown. - Credit: Archant

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That’s certainly what I found when I joined an over 65s yoga class at Knodishall last year to report on the benefits of staying active in older age. Two of the group were over 80 and five more over 70, yet they had an attitude to life that belied their years. Some of them did yoga every day, others also played tennis, went for long walks, swam, gardened and cycled.

“Coming to the class also keeps you in touch with people,” one of them told me. “We’ve all seen people who are inactive for whatever reason and you see them deteriorating because they are not moving. You learn a lesson from that.”

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Research published last year also suggested one in three cases of dementia could be prevented if more people looked after their brain health throughout life. The study’s authors listed nine key dementia risk factors, including lack of education, social isolation, hearing loss, smoking and physical inactivity.

So, while none of us can ever become teenagers again once we’re past the age of 19, perhaps we should all determine to be ‘seenagers’ as we grow older, challenging ourselves to try new things and staying active mentally and physically, not just ‘making it’ to our 80s, 90s, or even beyond, but joining the ranks of the superagers living independent, active, rich and full lives.

One woman who has done just that is Norwich’s Eileen Ash, who appeared on the ITV show 100-Year-Old Driving School last September to test her driving ability. After venturing out in her beloved mini, the 105-year-old former Test cricketer, who played seven matches for England either side of the Second World War, was told she had passed. The assessor said she was a “privilege” to drive with and he was happy for her to continue driving.

He added: “It would be so easy for her to slow down, take her foot off the gas so to speak, but she’s not, she’s full throttle and still going and I think that’s great.”

Eileen celebrated her 106th birthday in November, by taking to the skies in a Tiger Moth.

While Eileen is extraordinary, she is not the only superaging seenager out there.

Jude Wilson, head of marketing for UK Parachuting, based at Beccles Airfield, says it is seeing increasing numbers of older people who want to skydive, either to raise money for charity or just for the experience.

“Our oldest jumper was 96 and we took him up last summer,” says Jude. “We get a lot of people aged 70-plus or even 80-plus who want this once-in-a-lifetime experience for whatever reason.”

The list of daredevils include Philip Goldsmith, from Norwich, who took the plunge at the airfield in 2016, at the age of 91. He was already the veteran of two charity abseils, played table tennis three times a week, for two hours at a time, and was a regular pianist at singalongs in the city.

So, to quote professor of psychology Lisa Feldman Barrett, while there are no guarantees, it seems the best advice as we age is not to retire but to rewire and make sure you exercise, stay socially connected, keep the brain active, eat a balanced diet and never stop trying new things.

‘I enjoy having an active lifestyle’

Former French Open champion and Wimbledon and US Open finalist Christine Janes is now 77 but retains the kind of active lifestyle most of us could only dream of.

Christine, who lives at Aldeburgh, is currently recovering from a fall on Christmas Day in which she broke two vertebrae and itching to get back to her usual routine, which includes teaching local children to play tennis at weekly sessions in the town, playing tennis herself as well as golf and sea swimming between April and September.

“I just enjoy having an active lifestyle, getting out and meeting friends,” says Christine, who made her Wimbledon debut in 1957 at the age of 16, as Christine Truman. “Having been a sportsperson you are very much aware of the importance of maintaining fitness and there are so many opportunities to do that now, whatever your background.

“I am sure keeping active helps you maintain a younger outlook and keeps you interested in what’s going on around you.”

Jenny takes to the skies

Jenny Holland doesn’t consider herself a particularly daring individual yet in the last few years she has undertaken an abseil, skydive and most recently an ‘extreme’ wing walk.

That latest event, completed last summer to raise funds for the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital charity, has left Jenny, 70, with an appetite for more “crazy” fund-raising adventures.

“The whole idea of the wing walk was to do something different and challenging,” she says. “I had always thought I did not like heights so this would be out of my comfort zone. I found out quite a lot about myself in the process.”

Jenny, who lives at Toftwood, was secured perched on the wing of a 1940s Boeing Stearman Biplane and taken on a series of fly pasts and manoeuvres at speeds of up to 135mph - including a 500ft drop dive - during the trip from Upminster in Essex.

“I really enjoyed it,” she says. “I could see from Upminster along to Canary Wharf - it was an amazing experience and I was proud of myself for overcoming a fear I thought I had and doing something I never dreamed I would be able to do. It was exhilarating.”

Jenny has raised more than £14,000 for the hospital, as a way of saying thank you for the care she has received at its eye clinic, where she is a patient.

She has also completed a London Marathon for the hospital’s charity and likes to stay fit by exercising on a treadmill at home, running and walking five miles a day.

“I’m very independent and know how important staying active is,” she says.

A video of her wing walk can be seen at Aerobatic Tactics wing walking on Facebook.

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