Coolest grandma wants to break world record
IRENE O'Shea loves fast cars, faster Harley Davidsons and hurling herself out of planes. She's looking forward to her birthday. She'll be 101 years old.
But Irene, who lives in Adelaide and features in the upcoming episode of ABC's You Can't Ask That, has no intention of slowing down. She still lives alone in her own home, reads without glasses and drives her own car, which she calls her "sports car" with a vivacious grin.
It's actually a Ford Fiesta, but "it has two stripes that say 'sports' on the side of it so I can call it a sports car!" she says.
Irene has an ambition she's determined to fulfil in July. Earlier this month, D-Day veteran Vernon Hayes, stole the oldest skydiver world record away from Canada and brought it to the UK when he jumped 15,000 feet from a plane along with three generations of his family. He was 101 and 38 days. But he may not hold the honour for long. Now, Irene plans to bring that world record to Australia.
"When I heard that news I thought, I can beat that. On July 9th I'll be 101 and 39 days. I always wanted to be the first female to hold that record."
She plans to book the skydive soon: "I saw my doctor this month and he said if I continue as I am now, there's no reason I can't do it."
It won't be Irene's first sky dive. Last year, to mark her 100th birthday, Irene attached herself to an instructor with a parachute and ascended in a small plane as her family - including 11 great-grandchildren, the oldest being 18 - watched open-mouthed, necks-craned and throats nervously dry.
While most centenarians get excited about a letter from the Queen, Irene was busy flinging herself out of the sky: "I loved it and can't wait to do it again!" she laughs uproariously as I look at her in awe. I did a skydive last year too, I confess, and I've never experienced terror like it. "Oh I wasn't scared at all!" she retorts, quick-witted and wide-eyed.
Centenarians is the theme of the You Can't Ask That episode featuring Irene. She's sat next to another centenarian, Alf, who can't read the provocative questions posed by the public - so Irene does the honours, with her perfect, glasses-free eyesight.
Some questions - including one about "stray farts and saggy bits" were "embarrassing" but had her in hysterics - so much so, the final cut had to edit out much of her giggling, which she does often as we speak.
During the episode, some centenarians confess to no longer enjoying life. Irene couldn't disagree more: "I'm very happy. I'm still capable. And I have the most supportive family in Australia."
You believe her when she tells you, too. She exudes life from every wrinkle. At 92, Irene saddled up and was taken out riding on a fast Harley Davidson: "I always loved motorbikes but we could never afford one when I was younger. So this was something I'd always wanted to do."
Travelling around the world solo would daunt many twenty-somethings. Not so for Irene, who did it at 84. Her tour included Russia, Germany, France and Finland and she was un-phased by being on her own.
Her idea of hell is "sitting on a beach" and she reels off an inventory of world sites she has taken in as a pensioner - from the Taj Mahal to Niagara Falls.
She has stayed in touch with Tadashi, a Japanese au pair she met when Tadashi was 18, and visited Japan three times. "She's a grandmother now. I saw her grandson being born in the hospital - they sleep on the floor there - I couldn't believe it" she says. "We still send each other birthday and Christmas presents every year."
But things have by no means been easy in Irene's long life. Tragedy struck in 2008 when her daughter died of motor neurone disease. "I still can't get over it" she says, adding that her sky dives are dedicated to her daughter.
"I raised $7,000 last year for the Motor Neurone Disease Association and hope to raise even more this year. I want them to research a cure so nobody has to live through what my daughter did."
1953 was her annus horribilis, when she lost her husband, her favourite sister-in-law, and a baby nephew: "I don't know how I got through it, but you just carry on and do what you can."
And carry on she did. She still goes to her social clubs twice a week, where she plays rummy, but never for money. And for her 101st birthday, the 30th of May, she's being taken to the ice rink: "I've always loved ice skating and we're seeing Frozen on ice. I can't wait - I loved the film!" she laughs again.
What, then, is the secret to such a long and, mostly, happy life? "There isn't a secret to living longer - it's all genetics" she asserts.
"But there are things you can avoid - I never really drank and gave up smoking years ago." "Plus", she adds, "having a good sense of humour really, really helps" - and she laughs that laugh again, followed by a big sigh.