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Virginia Ironside

Virginia IronsideAuthor and journalist Virginia Ironside joined us in July 2012 to answer questions on loneliness and choosing to be alone, her career as an agony aunt and what getting older has taught her. Virginia will be appearing at this year's Edinburgh festival in her show Growing Old Disgracefully, which has been adapted from her book The Virginia Monologues - Why Growing Old Is Great.

Q: Having been an 'almost' only child I do like my own company and the peace to indulge my hobbies, so that part of growing older doesn't bother me. But other aspects - appearance and health - do. Do you feel a grieving for "the way we used to look" and the stamina and tiptop health of youth? I do. sixtiesgirl

A: No, I don't! My experience is that so many older people let themselves go that with only a very little effort it's extremely easy to look a lot more glam than quite a few contemporaries. As for health, having suffered depression all through my youth, which is worse than anything, a bit of arthritis now doesn't bother me at all - it's a welcome relief in fact! Anything is better than being depressed.

Q: Why is it so hard for people to accept that some of us actually like living alone? I know it is not for everybody, but it is so annoying when people insist that I must be lonely as if it couldn't possibly be a deliberate choice. Greatnan

A: To be honest I don't think you should get annoyed because it's very kind of them to worry about you, even if you're not worried about yourself. So I would just smile graciously and say: "How kind of you to be so sympathetic! But I'm one of the lucky people who actually like being alone." And remember, too, how lucky you are. Because lots of people hate being alone.

Q: I've lived alone for 30 yrs. Most of the time happy with that - have good friends and neighbours, lots of activities - though this is changing as l become less mobile. But I would like to ask what you suggest for holidays and weekends which can be a bit lonely. Maniac

A: They can be a bit hard, I agree. I have two strategies. One is to say to myself that I NEVER go out on Saturday nights. That way when I don't go out, I don't feel alone or neglected. And the other is, of course, to make endless plans. What so few people realise is that living alone is really like a full-time career and it requires a huge amount of work. Friendships need to be watered, you have to ask people round if you expect to be asked over, and you have to arrange jaunts, instigate phone calls and so on. It's much more relaxing not being alone, in my view, and living alone can be exhausting, even if fun.

Q: I believe you had a facelift a few years ago. What made you decide to do that? As someone who now celebrates getting older, do you still feel it was a good idea? GranIT

A: I realised that having been so depressed when I was young, I was looking terribly gloomy. Since I was feeling so much happier, I wanted my face to reflect that - hence the facelift. I have to say it's been one of the best things I've ever done. Because I look happier, people feel happier when they meet me, and so I respond in a more smiley way and so on.

Q: My main worry about living on my own is what happens in an emergency. Can you suggest some steps to put in place in case? I have friends in sheltered accommodation who have alarms to press - but in my own home I can't see any alternative bar making it to the phone. And if I was seriously ill or hurt that wouldn't necessarily be possible or practical. curlynan

A: You can, of course, buy personal alarms that you wear round your neck all the time and if you're worried you might fall ill and be unable to make it to the phone, I would really recommend one of those. But one thing that's extremely important when you're old is to make friends with your neighbours - and I mean your immediate neighbours. Ask them over at Christmas for drinks, and be sure to get to know their names. It is much easier, when you're alone and have more time on your hands, to initiate these contacts particularly with busy working neighbours, rather than expect them to start the friendship. It's amazing how kind - and useful - neighbours can be in medical emergencies.

Q: I would love to know more about what it's like to be an agony aunt. Do people's problems ever stay with you? And have you ever given an answer you wish you hadn't? chocolateaddict

A: I'd always been a journalist since the age of 20 and having had a rather troubled childhood with an alcoholic mother I found caring for people very satisfying. When I heard there was a vacancy for an agony aunt at Woman magazine in the early seventies I jumped at the chance and I've been doing it ever since. No, I've never given an answer I've regretted, and yes, problems about child abuse always stay with me. When I say abuse I don't mean just sexual abuse - I mean the far more common neglect, physical violence etc.

Q: You wrote about your colostomy bag (rather bravely, I thought). Do you still have it? And are there any subjects off-limits for you? spitfire

A: Yes, I still have it. And, amazingly, it is not the end of the world. What always worried me was that I would have to go round in enormous capacious skirts, but actually you can wear very slim things and it doesn't show. Once you get the hang of it it's easy peasy and honestly there's nothing to worry about - though I have to say I'm glad I didn't have it when I was much younger and looking for a sexual partner. Yes, there are off-limits subjects for me. So off-limit that I won't even mention them!

Q: I have been happily married for 43 years, since the age of 19. My husband is in very good health and I hope we will enjoy many more years together, but I can imagine that making a life alone after all that time would be very hard. I would like to ask you how you advise people to start to make a life for themselves after many years as a couple? Are there any things you should definitely do or not do? Mamie

A: At this stage of life I would start to try to learn how to be independent NOW, before you're left with the difficult business of having to learn all these things once your partner has died. I'm sorry if this sounds rather depressing but I'm only being realistic. In other words, if you can't drive, learn to drive now. If your husband can't cook, insist he learns now. Make sure that each of you is equipped the the skills needed to live alone. So many widows and widowers have written to me after a partner has died and they're not only struck by grief, which is bad enough, but find they simply find it so hard to cope as individuals, on a practical level.

Q: I am interested that you say you were depressed. How did you get over it? underwhere

Q: I would like to know that too: I suffer terribly. Also - if you were depressed did it make it harder to help others with your work? curlynan

A: I wish I knew the answer. I tried everything from pills to psychotherapy to acupuncture to psychodrama - you name it I did it. My experience is that you have to keep fighting it... it's an ongoing battle. Eventually you learn coping strategies and can help yourself a bit - you find the odd thing that works. I've found - after seeing several completely ghastly therapists - that going to an absolutely brilliant kind and compassionate counsellor has helped me. But I have to say that although I've had the most marvellous depression-free time for the last few years, it does pop back occasionally, a nasty reminder that it's always there, quick to settle in if you're feeling tired or low. One of depression's nasty habits is to persuade you that it will NEVER go away. Not even for a minute. It's worth remembering that this is a complete lie. It's the depression talking. Don't be persuaded by it. Depression comes AND goes. I'm afraid it often comes again, but it can, also, go again.

Q: Have you got to the stage yet of thinking about what you would like to be remembered for? pudding

A: I think one should ALWAYS be thinking what you want to be remembered for. But I would love to be remembered for being as kind as I could, being honest, and being a good mum and grannie. Whether I WILL be remember for any of those is another matter completely. Luckily I won't be around to find out! Certainly I would far prefer to be remembered for my positive human characteristics than for anything like writing.

Q: Any tips on getting through those times when you just feel really low and wish there was someone else around? Presumably you feel like that sometimes, even if you like living alone on the whole? praxis

A: If I feel really low I usually just go to bed. Or force myself out. Of course there are times when I long for someone else to be around. But I have to say that it doesn't take long before I imagine what it would be like to have someone around ALL the time, and I soon realise that of the two I'd far rather be alone.

Q: I feel that loneliness is not only a problem for some people who live alone: many of us in a relationship can sometimes feel very lonely too. I sometimes feel more lonely when my partner is there than when I am alone. It feels like being shut out and can sometimes last for several days. Apart from leaving the relationship have you any tips on how to cope with the lonely times? Hankipanki

A: I have to say that I think this sort of loneliness that you describe is the worst kind of all. Because not only are you alone, but you feel that someone is actively pushing you out into the cold. I certainly would consider leaving the relationship myself, but if it's not possible, then I would try to start building a completely separate life within the same home. Separate bedrooms, separate tellies, separate mealtimes if possible. I don't know the situation and it may be that your partner is ill in some way and you feel you can't leave, but try your best to separate mentally so you don't feel wounded when you're shut out.

Q: There's been a lot of talk recently about women journalists having to be much more confessional than men (a la Liz Jones) and reveal things about themselves to make a living. Have you come under that sort of pressure? And do you agree that women journalists have a tougher time unless they are prepared to write about intimate things? highlights

A: I have been under pressure to write about myself, it's true, but I don't have much of a problem with that. And after all no one forces you to do so, so if you don't want to, you needn't. My own feeling is that all journalists these days are facing a tough time, and my advice is that if any of you have grandchildren wanting to take media studies at college, to discourage them as much as possible. (I have to say that I was similarly discouraged when I was young and I'm very glad I didn't take the advice, but these days journalism is a terribly difficult profession to survive in, for both men and women, whether you're prepared to bare all or not.)

Q: What sort of gran are you? chunky

A: I TRY to be the BEST GRANNIE EVER. I had the most wonderful grandmother myself and I owe a lot to her. We went to the seaside together in the summer, and she always had treats, and gave me her undivided attention. What I love, when my grandchildren come over, is making things with them. We make loads of things - cooking, things out of cardboard boxes, recently we made a moth trap for the garden, we make kits... and I love to make them their special breakfast. It's easy for me, though, because oddly, I just adore playing farms or hide-and-seek and I know that a lot of my contemporaries find those things boring. Unfortunately I can only play farms or hide and seek with my grandchildren - I don't see my contemporaries agreeing to play with me! I shall be bereft when they grow up!

Q: Obviously having an alcoholic mother had a huge impact on you. What advice would you give to someone who is the child of an alcoholic about how best to deal with it and live happily? crosspatch

A: I would find someone to confide in, and beg the child of the alcoholic to do their best to distance themselves from the alcoholic. I would really recommend they attend Al-Ateen meetings, set up by AA and specifically for the children of alcoholics. That way they will learn that there is absolutely NOTHING they can do to help. Once you try to help, by pouring bottles down the sink or tearfully begging them to stop, you, too become almost as much in thrall to the bottle as the alcoholics themselves. I wasted years trying to help, with absolutely no effect whatsoever. My mother did eventually stop drinking but it was nothing to do with me and entirely her own choice.

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By joining Al-Ateen, too, they will discovered that there are masses of other children in the same position. That's always a comfort.


Q: I live alone and I find that I have to be quite strict with myself about things like eating at the table and not picking from the fridge or not bothering to make my bed. As a result I find I have so many rules that I often feel I am rather hard on myself and not good at giving myself little treats. Do you have any advice about how to manage all this better? vilebody

A: You'll have to give yourself another rule, which won't be difficult to stick by since you're clearly very good at obeying orders, and that is NOT TO BE SO HARD ON YOURSELF! Couldn't you give a few hours a day when rules don't count? Or a day when you don't stick to the rules. I admire you for making the rules, by the way - it's terribly easy to leave the bed unmade and simply eat standing up picking from the fridge, and never get out of your dressing gown, but give yourself a break now and again...!

Thanks so much for all your lovely questions and comments! It's been fun. Now I can go back to my lonely house, slip into my dressing gown and start picking from the fridge.

She's manipulative - 5-year-old GD

Is it discrimination? - obesity

She invited herself - daughter