Sharp and sociable at 93: but World War II veteran Tom Beale is ready to die
Airforce veteran Tom Beale is 93 and a few weeks ago asked a 25-year-old stranger if he wouldn't mind being his pallbearer.
"That young man probably thought I was joking, but the fact is my old cobbers have all died and my body's giving in," he says in the fern-filled solarium of his north Auckland rest home. Matter-of-fact not morbid, he hopes his funeral isn't too far off.
"You become very lonely when you've done your dash," Beale notes.
Statistically speaking, he's right. Data from the Ministry of Social Development shows that while Kiwis get steadily less lonely as they move between the ages of 15 and 75, lonesomeness spikes for the over-75s.
It tends to get trussed up with social isolation - living day-to-day with little interaction with the outside world - as an issue for the elderly.
But Auckland University of Technology research into older adult loneliness, published last month, stresses that even the least solitary amongst us can feel alone.
Social isolation is the lack of human contact in a person's life, measured by how many people can be called upon to help. Loneliness, a more subjective state, is a lack of quality relationships.
Beale is widower with his only living child - ill herself with a brain tumour - living in Finland, but he is not isolated.
He lives down a corridor of many similarly aged neighbours, each in a 4m x 6m room identical to his own bar the contents of its photographs, at the Evelyn Page Retirement Village in Orewa.
Kind staff in flowery blue uniforms knock on the doors often, checking everyone is all right.
He's popular. Acquaintances phone him every day for a chat, to ask him out for a drive, or to come over for dinner. He is grateful for the offers, but says he often declines them "out of pride".
Old age has stiffened his joints and knocked his confidence. He worries he'd grunt when getting into the car, lose track of the conversation, or be boring.
"You can't help but think, 'are they ringing me genuinely, or do they feel that they're under an obligation now that they've met me to keep it rolling?'," he says.
"But I know it's silly and I'm bringing loneliness upon myself."
Beale has stopped mingling with residents at the rest home's 'happy hour'. He says that while his body is failing, other residents' minds are gone - and he finds that "a bit too sad" to witness.
"The trouble with me is that I've still got a brain," he says.
"Down there they give you a sip of wine and a biscuit and everyone sings It's a Long Way to Tipperary - but you know what? They're all off in fairy land."
Nevertheless, he thinks he's probably typecast by the public as "just another poor wrinkly" trundling around Orewa on his mobility scooter.
He'd like people to know he was a champion jitterbugger and that he saved a fellow soldier from drowning in the Solomon Islands, during World War II.
That he suffered profound grief when his wife and their 44-year-old son died in the early 90s, just 11 months apart. That he used to sail races in his Davidson 28 from the Weiti Boating Club, on the Whangaparaoa Peninsula, an hour north of Auckland.
And that he keeps up with global affairs; he's eager to give US President Donald Trump a piece of his still-sharp mind.
Age Concern's social connect advisor Louise Rees says loneliness like Beale's has been identified as a high-priority problem for her organisation to to tackle.
"A one-on-one visitor is a less threatening option than going along to a group activity," she says. More than 90 per cent of elderly clients report back that the visits make a positive difference in their lives.
Age Concern also co-ordinate get-togethers across the country, from lunch clubs in Southland to a singing group in Taranaki.
"We all have different needs for interaction," says Rees. "There isn't one right approach for everyone, but it's important for people's quality of life to at least have these opportunities to connect."
Researchers at the University of California looked into the impact of loneliness on 1600 elderly people's health, and found a relationship that appeared to go both ways. From stair climbing to heart disease to depression: the lonely got sicker and less mobile over the six-year study than those happy with the state of their social lives.
They also had a higher mortality rate. Nearly 23 per cent of participants identifying as lonely died before the study was completed, compared with 14 per cent of the non-lonesome.
The AUT study found weakened eyesight to be major contributor to loneliness in the elderly. Beale has glaucoma - a degenerative eye disease - and says he's becoming more withdrawn as his vision blurs.
"I look around and the world is hazy ... that makes you tentative, and robs you of the pleasure of a good book."
Decent vision paired with a love of reading - and dogs - are trends many alone but not lonely elderly seem to have in common.
Elizabeth Young, a widow of 18 years, lives with her staffie-huntaway-labrador Jet in a unit at a retirement village in Whangarei. The 90-year-old says it's "good luck and genes" keeping her in a chipper state of mind.
She plays bridge three times a week with friends, but is "quite happy alone with a good book and the dog".
"It probably also helps that I've never been one to crave social interaction - I like my own company," Young says.
Young was born in England and drove trucks during World War II, as a Wren.
In New Zealand, she and her Kiwi husband ran the general store and post office in Whananaki, 40km north of Whangarei. Her husband died 18 years ago, and she moved to The Falls Retirement Village just over two years ago.
"I miss the open spaces and the sound of the sea at Whananaki," she says.
"When I go back I have mixed feelings, because I used to be so involved. As a visitor I feel like I don't belong.
"But one has to move on with one's life, and I've very fortunate with my health."
She has a daughter and step-daughter that she is close to.
Beale, on the other hand, has always been a mates - and ladies' - man. He grew up in Devonport surrounded by cousins and then "forged friendships through shared danger" during the war, stationed in the Solomon Islands and Japan.
Beale had a girlfriend in Japan; they'd picnic in forests near Hiroshima, before she tragically died in a car crash.
Later, back in New Zealand, he had buddies ringing up with a "hey Bealey Boy, let's go for sail"; Beale was always ready for a trip up to Russell or down round Mayor Island.
After the war Beale, first saw his "darling wife Joan" boogying to the Chattanooga Choo Choo in an Auckland dance hall.
His mate Charlie bet him 10 shillings that Joan would would decline his bid for a foxtrot. She accepted, and three weeks later they were engaged.
"We were corny back in those days," Beale remembers. "We used to tell the girls, 'come up with me and I'll dance you away to heaven'."
The couple were married for 45 years before Joan died in his arms, "at two minutes past six on the sixth of October, 1992".
While their marriage had ups and downs - an affair, money trouble, moves - Beale says the only time he felt lonely in those four and a half decades was when he was without Joan.
They sailed yachts together, managed hotels across the North Island, and raised raised two children - Gary and Laraine.
After Joan's death, Beale moved aboard his yacht - the Temeraire - and would lie awake at night listening to wind in the sails, gazing up at a little box on a port-side shelf: his wife's ashes.
"That was loneliness," he says. "But being only 70, I pulled myself together." He put an ad seeking a sailing companion in the paper.
Thirty-nine women responded, and one of them married Beale in 1995 despite a 20-year age gap. They were married for 12 years before the age difference ultimately became too much, according to Beale, and they divorced.
By then aged 83, Beale faced an "old age and loneliness combo" that eventually lead him to the retirement village.
"I lost that feeling of wanting to rise over the occasion or get out and show a bit of strength," he says.
He also feels out of touch with today's society. Beale sees tattoos on young women as "degrading", and is bothered by Coronation Street's male minister in love with a barman. Don't get him started on reality TV show The Bachelor.
"I just think to myself that my world is totally different to this world we have today," he says. "Totally different."
Beale's happiest moments of late have been at his local RSA in Silverdale. He reckons its "like a church" for returned servicemen, a place to turn to "for a bit of comradeship and all that stuff".
Most of his time is spent alone in his room reminiscing. Beale sits at his computer and flicks through photo galleries.
There's a sepia shot of Joan, tanned and slim in a white halterneck top, leaning against an old car. Laraine and Gary, as children, smiling up at the camera in their Sunday best.
Then there's Beale as a little boy in a line up of cousins all wearing winter coats. There's Beale and his second wife in France, at parties, and on boats.
"We oldies have lives held together mainly by our memories," Beale says. "But I'm afraid mine are beginning to fade."
"That brings on a big part of my loneliness."
He says he's ready to "go out" to the Chatanooga Choo Choo.
But until then, what can help stave off feeling alone? "Kindness never does any harm," Beale answers, "but to be honest I think we're just living a bit too long".
- Sunday Star Times