It’s hard to believe that veteran broadcaster Joan Bakewell will celebrate her 85th birthday next month – but hardly a surprise that even at her age, she breezed through a hip replacement after an agonising six years with osteoarthritis.
Indeed, she resumed a twice-weekly Pilates routine, her exercise of choice for the past 25 years, an astonishing eight weeks later.
The Labour peer, who was famously dubbed ‘the thinking man’s crumpet’ and had an affair with playwright Harold Pinter in the 1960s, now also hosts a weekly TV show on Sky Arts.
But she admits she went through a lot of pain while she delayed the surgery she knew she needed.
‘My right hip was enormously painful and it was clearly getting worse,’ says Dame Joan. ‘I was OK when standing, but moving was a real problem.’
Following a scan in 2014, Joan was diagnosed with the most common form of arthritis, which had resulted in a loss of cartilage on her right hip and what she describes as ‘bone rubbing on bone. It was really worn out’.
Osteoarthritis of the hip is estimated to affect one in nine people over 45. Besides age, other causes include sports injuries and obesity.
Joan’s orthopaedic surgeon, Sarah Muirhead-Allwood, confirmed she needed a right hip replacement – the left one was healthy – and that old age was to blame.
Joan recalls: ‘I said to her “I’ll think about having it in a year or two” and she said, “Joan, you are 81. How long are you going to think about it?” I realised she was right – and that if I was to carry on presenting, I’d need to have it done.’
True to professional form, Joan went privately for her operation so she could fit in with the filming schedule of Sky’s Portrait Artist of the Year show.
‘Afterwards, I asked to see the old hip joint – which apparently no one had ever asked before. It was brown and rather like a cricket ball. I asked if could have it. I wanted it as a trophy for my desk at home! But for health-and-safety reasons, they said no.’
After four days in hospital, Joan was allowed home with strong painkillers, and her daughter looked after her. ‘It was impossible to stand up and it was real a pain to even make a cup of tea,’ she recalls. ‘After a week, I was out of bed and after two weeks, I was on crutches. But it was hard work and I did have to get a lot of taxis.’
The long-term advantages are clear to see. ‘It’s really changed my life,’ says Joan, speaking for the first time about the 2014 procedure. ‘It’s made me feel young again, which is wonderful.
‘Now, I have no pain at all. I still do my Pilates and go to a class between 8am and 9am. I have done it for 25 years at the same studio and it’s one of the reasons I can still walk and move. I can touch my toes and have no back pain.’
But Joan admits that getting out of bed for her early class is a struggle – especially in winter. She says: ‘As you get older, your discipline tends to flag. I have to remind myself I am doing this so I live a long and good life.
‘The thing about exercise is you actually need to do more as you get older, not less. It helps you keep your balance so you don’t fall over and break bones.’
And having recently filmed a BBC programme with centenarians, called Life At 100, Dame Joan is more determined than ever to keep mobile for as long as possible. ‘Everyone in the show was amazing, but they all had trouble walking,’ she explains.
‘A lot of them said to me, “Whatever you do, keep moving so you can walk and exercise – it’s one of the most important things.” ’
Today, she takes a glucosamine supplement in an effort to keep her bones and joints strong, and claims not to feel old. ‘I don’t really think about it – and the good thing about getting older is that you stop worrying about what the world thinks.
‘However, it’s true there aren’t many of us around at this age,’ she concedes. ‘And on TV, the only real oldies are me and David Attenborough. When I saw him at his 90th, he asked me if I was going to retire. I said not if I can help it, and he said he was the same.’
Death is another subject Dame Joan is keen to discuss, as her recent Radio 4 series on the issue has shown.
‘You need to leave instructions,’ she insists. ‘I have what’s known as an Advance Directive – it used to be called a Living Will. It says if I am hit by a bus and in a coma with little chance of recovery, then they are not to resuscitate and I give them permission to pull the plug.
‘I did it because medicine is now so clever and so brilliant that it can keep you ticking over, when nature would have taken you away. Death is a very important part of life and I feel we should have a say in it.’
lJoan Bakewell presents Sky Arts’ Portrait Artist of the Year, with Frank Skinner, on Tuesdays at 8pm.