Life Advice From Adelaide’s Elders – Irene, 101

There are two certainties in life: we are born and we die. How we choose to spend the years in between is up to us. We caught up with South Australians who are proud of the lines on their face and the increasing number of candles on their birthday cake. They have a twinkle in their eye and plenty of life experience to share. So we got some life advice – from the people who know best.

Irene O’Shea, 101

This super nan has a thing for jumping out of planes. Last year Irene marked 101 years on the planet with a celebratory 14,000-foot jump. Her efforts landed her the record for oldest woman in the world to sky dive. She’ll do it again in December 2018, if her body is up to it. “It was marvellous. I’m hoping to go for the [world record for] oldest person to sky dive. Man and female. I’ll be 102.”

In over a century she’s seen and done it all including global solo travel and riding as a pillion passenger on a Harley Davidson (at 92 years young). She still has her driver’s license, reads without specs and lives at home with support from ACH Group who give her a hand with shopping, domestic duties and gardening. It’s a long way from her former life in Norfolk, England, where she grew up as one of seven children. “I’ve had a hard life,” she says. “I lived in London during the war.”

It was marvellous. I’m hoping to go for the [world record for] oldest person to skydive. Man and female. I’ll be 102.

Irene met her husband at the cinema (during a break in air raids). “We banged together! He almost knocked me over ’cause it was pitch dark.” She chuckles. “He took me into this café, got me a cup of tea and the song playing at the time [on the jukebox] was ‘Bye, Bye Blackbird’. We married in August [1940], ’cause we thought he was going to be called up.” He wasn’t. Instead, he repaired railways in the wake of bombings. “I really wanted to be a nurse but I couldn’t because I’ve got to admit, I can’t spell. That’s what ruined my chance. I ended up being a nurse’s assistant.”

The couple didn’t have long together. “My husband got cancer and passed away in September 1953. I’ve been on my own since then. I had my daughter and son. My son is still alive but he lives in London. He rings me every Monday, Wednesday and Friday to check to see if I’m all right.” Irene moved to Australia in April 1974 to be with family. “I bought this house in August ’74 and I’ve been here ever since.”

Tragedy hit in 2008 when Irene lost her daughter Shelagh to motor neurone disease. “She was 67 when she died, 18 months after her diagnosis. She had quite a brilliant brain. She could speak four languages. I don’t know why she went and I was left.” Irene cradles her daughter’s photo. “You never get over it. I’ve lost my mum, I’ve lost my husband, and I’ve lost brothers but to lose a child is a different [thing] altogether.”

Irene’s skydiving jumps raise money for Motor Neurone Disease (MND) research. “It’s really a dreadful disease. They helped Shelagh quite a bit when she was suffering.”

You never get over it. I’ve lost my mum, I’ve lost my husband, and I’ve lost brothers but to lose a child is a different [thing] altogether.

Injury has plagued Irene, too. “The operations I’ve had are enormous. I’ve got four screws in my ankle, I had a fall and broke the top of my leg. I had to have a hip replacement and when I was 82 I had a gallstone operation and that went wrong. I got peritonitis and they gave me 24 hours to live.” She’s also had a hysterectomy, has an artificial jaw joint, and had a stroke.

Her walking frame sits unused in her bedroom and according to Irene, there’s nothing extraordinary about her diet. “I don’t eat spicy food. I used to smoke, until I was about 50. Then I gave it up. But I don’t drink alcohol. I’ve never liked alcohol. I don’t think it does you any good, anyhow.”

Life according to Irene

You’ve got to have a sense of humour.

Respect other people and most of all, you’ve got to respect yourself.

Always respect your parents and listen to what they have to say because, as far as I’m concerned, parents are there to help you.

Discover how you can contribute to the fight against motor neurone disease with MND South Australia.

Photos: Naomi Giatas
Video: Aaron Nassau

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