' I don't have any regrets about any roads I didn't take . . .'


Maeve Binchy reflected on lessons of a lifetime in conversation with JOANNE HUNTfor an Irish Times Healthy Age supplement this month

THE GREAT thing about getting older is that you become more mellow. Things aren’t as black and white and you become much more tolerant. You can see the good in things much more easily, rather than getting enraged as you used to do when you were young.

I am much more understanding of people than I used to be when I was young – people were either villainous or wonderful. They were painted in very bright colours. The bad side of it, and there is a corollary to everything, is that when we get older, we fuss more. I used to despise people who fussed.

If I was going on a holiday, I’d just fling a few things into a suitcase and race out to the airport and not talk about it. Nowadays, if I’m going anywhere, the smallest journey, it has to be planned like the Normandy landing.

The relaxing bit is that you don’t get as het up and annoyed and take offence as much as you used to.

Another good thing is that you value your friends more as you get older: you’re not in any kind of competitive relationship with them any more, wishing to succeed or show off, or impress others.

You value people just for themselves. Unfortunately, as you get older, your friends die. It’s that cliché of being afraid to look at the Christmas card list each year because of the people that have gone from it – that is a very sad and depressing thing.

I’m almost afraid to look at photos of my wedding now because so many people have died who were at it. You can’t believe they are not all there in some part of the forest, still enjoying themselves.

I have more time certainly . . . and I’m more interested in everything. I’m interested in what other people are interested in, much more. However, you don’t have enough energy to do things. It would be lovely to have the energy to do all the things I’m interested in now.

I think it’s a balance: nobody has everything at the same time. When you are young, you have time and energy but you don’t have any money.

When you get a job, you have energy and money but you don’t have time.

And when you are older, you have time and you have money but you don’t have enough energy. Nobody has all three together.

I think, as you get older, you do fewer unexpected things. You wouldn’t head off somewhere not knowing how you were going to come back again. It’s like going out to the middle of a frozen lake: you’re always plotting your journey home before you set out somewhere.

I’ve found growing older most extraordinary. I thought inside you’d change and you’d start thinking like an old person, but I don’t think inside I’ve changed at all. I’ve just become slightly more tolerant of everybody, which has to be good.

The best is Brenda Fricker’s remark that when people of her age meet now they have something called “the organ recital” where they go through all the organs that are not working. I think that’s so funny.

So health is a nuisance and I was talking to a friend of mine and she said: “Do you remember when we used to have conversations that didn’t begin ‘When I was at the doctor . . .?’”

What did we do with our time when we weren’t at the doctor? It does take up a disproportionate amount of your time, just the business of maintenance and keeping yourself together.

There are lots of things I wish I had done more of – studied harder, read more and been nicer and all those things – but I don’t have any regrets about any roads I didn’t take. Everything went well and I think that’s been a help because I can look back, and I do get great pleasure out of looking back.

I get just as much of a laugh out of thinking of funny things from the old days as if they were last week.

I’ve been very lucky and I have a happy old age with good family and friends still around.