Age­ing well: Noelle McCarthy on her ground-break­ing pod­cast

Known as the voice of sum­mer, the pop­u­lar broad­caster has now tuned into the au­tumn years with a se­ries that looks at the process of age­ing. Noelle McCarthy talks to Wendyl Nissen about fac­ing the changes of time.


At 37 years old, you wouldn’t think stylish broad­caster Noelle McCarthy would have much ex­pe­ri­ence with age­ing, or for that mat­ter be much of an ex­pert on the sub­ject. But those who have been lis­ten­ing to her

Ra­dio New Zealand pod­cast A Wrin­kle in Time, will know that she’s be­come some­what of an age­ing guru.

Since Fe­bru­ary, Noelle has de­voted her­self to find­ing out how our re­la­tion­ship with age­ing has changed as our life ex­pectancy has in­creased. Hun­dreds of in­ter­views later she pro­duced six halfhour episodes (which can be lis­tened to at any time on­line) about get­ting older in a world that wants us to stay young.

“There are so many peo­ple who are bet­ter qual­i­fied in terms of years if you look at the ma­jor­ity of the au­di­ence for RNZ Na­tional,” says Noelle. “They know so much more about it than me, but I felt it was im­por­tant to not be an

ex­pert, to hon­our the ex­pe­ri­ence of the in­ter­vie­wee.

“The peo­ple I spoke to were get­ting on with their lives with such grace and hon­esty and hu­mour be­cause life is nasty and brutish and short and our bod­ies let us down all the time, but there’s also a spir­i­tual el­e­ment that is so ful­fill­ing. I came away feel­ing that it was re­ally im­por­tant for me not to sugar-coat it – to ad­dress de­men­tia, cancer, loss of vi­sion, im­paired phys­i­cal move­ment… the idea that all of those things are in the post for me.”

Dur­ing the se­ries Noelle heads off to get Bo­tox, and then de­cides not to – “re­serv­ing the right to change my mind at a later date,” she adds. She talks can­didly to peo­ple of dif­fer­ent ages about their ex­pe­ri­ences and in­ter­views many ex­perts on age­ing.

The in­ter­view that af­fected Noelle per­son­ally was with Pro­fes­sor Richard Faull, who is the direc­tor of the

Cen­tre for Brain Re­search at

Auck­land Uni­ver­sity.

“He and his team are known in­ter­na­tion­ally for dis­cov­er­ing the brain can ac­tu­ally keep mak­ing new brain cells through­out adult life. I was near­ing the end of my in­ter­views and re­ally over­loaded with in­for­ma­tion. I was feel­ing a bit lost. And he said to me that what you think of as chal­lenges are often these great op­por­tu­ni­ties. His re­searchers hadn’t been look­ing for the brain growth dis­cov­ery; it came out of some­thing else they were do­ing. So I came away and thought I will fol­low the threads that are most in­ter­est­ing and most up­lift­ing to me be­cause I be­lieve op­ti­mism is es­sen­tial in this.”

Some­one she found par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing to in­ter­view was Dr Ruth Wes­theimer, the Amer­i­can sex ther­a­pist who was in­sis­tent that older women wear bolero jack­ets to cover their up­per arms.

“It was very early in the morn­ing, my time, and she started out be­ing very graphic about the me­chan­ics of sex, the need for lu­bri­ca­tion and per­haps some phar­ma­co­log­i­cal help, and then she be­came fix­ated on the bolero thing. I found that quite con­fronting and quite ageist ac­tu­ally!”

Dr Ruth never made the fi­nal cut, mainly be­cause Noelle felt that sex in the older age group was too com­plex a topic to deal with so lightly in her se­ries. “That needs a se­ries of its own.”

Some of the pod­cast is de­voted to how peo­ple’s ex­pe­ri­ences of age­ing in this era dif­fer so much from oth­ers who lived just a short 150 years ago.

“Even across gen­er­a­tions our life ex­pe­ri­ence is so dif­fer­ent. When I was 32 I bought my first wash­ing ma­chine; when my mother was 32 she had four chil­dren,” says Noelle.

“Mile­stones have shifted and our ex­pe­ri­ences of age have changed. I spoke to an epi­demi­ol­o­gist and was told that at the time when New Zealand had the high­est life­ex­pectancy in the world, the av­er­age life­span was the mid-50s – that’s just 150 years ago.

“All of this hap­pened in such a short space of time and it changed our con­cept of old age. It made it so much bet­ter in some ways and so much harder in oth­ers, such as the pres­sure to have cos­metic in­ter­ven­tions.

“Age­ing is now scary, yet won­der­ful, and lib­er­at­ing, yet en­slav­ing if you put your­self into this reg­i­men of main­tain­ing vi­tal­ity at all costs. That’s why it’s so great to hear Pro­fes­sor Faull say, ‘Keep it sim­ple

– do what you love and be around the peo­ple you love and you’ll be fine.’”

A Wrin­kle in Time is the first pod­cast pro­duced for RNZ Na­tional, so Noelle was very aware she was break­ing new ground.

“I didn’t re­ally want to do it at first be­cause I was too scared. I wor­ried that I didn’t know enough or could do some­thing in this for­mat. I’m quite an anx­ious over-thinker so when big op­por­tu­ni­ties present them­selves it can be hard. But I be­lieve that if you can think your way to right-act­ing you can act your way to right-think­ing – so you fake it.”

Firstly, though, Noelle de­cided to get on the phone and ring top pod­cast pro­ducer Si­mon Adler from WYNC’s Ra­di­o­lab pod­cast. WYNC is New York’s pub­lic ra­dio ser­vice.

She asked him for some ad­vice about what she needed to make her pod­cast se­ries the best it could be and soon re­alised that Si­mon worked with teams of re­searchers and pro­duc­ers on just one pod­cast. Back here in New Zealand it was only Noelle and a part­time re­searcher and sound de­signer An­dre Up­ston from Ra­dio New Zealand work­ing on it.

“When I ex­plained this to him, he nar­rowed it down to one thing – I needed a script edi­tor to take a look at my work from a dis­tance.”

So she asked her screen­writer fi­ancé John Daniell to help her out.

“It’s one thing to kiss a guy and an­other to let him edit your script,” says Noelle, who had to work on her de­fen­sive­ness.

It’s taken Noelle eight years at

Ra­dio New Zealand to reach the stage where she could pro­duce A Wrin­kle in Time. Many lis­ten­ers will know her from Sum­mer Noelle, which has been the back­ground to Kiwi sum­mers since 2007, with her lyri­cal Ir­ish ac­cent keep­ing us com­pany at the bach, in the gar­den or on the sun lounger.

“There’s a lovely sense of peace and ease and com­mu­nity about the show,” says Noelle, whose mix of in­ter­views and ma­te­rial has al­ways been eclec­tic be­cause it re­flects many of her own par­tic­u­lar in­ter­ests.

“Some­one once told me that as a fam­ily they drink Brandy Alexan­ders on Box­ing Day and sit around lis­ten­ing to Sum­mer Noelle, so that is who I’m talk­ing to on that show – it helps me get in the mood.”

Sadly, there won’t be any more Sum­mer Noelle, as Ra­dio New Zealand has told her there is no longer the money to fund the show.

“It was a real source of joy for me

Age­ing is now scary, yet won­der­ful, lib­er­at­ing, yet en­slav­ing…”

be­cause New Zealand sum­mers are phe­nom­e­nal and the na­tional mood changes. I loved be­ing con­nected to that.”

When Noelle ar­rived in New Zealand from Cork, Ire­land, in 2002 she had no idea she would end up as one of our favourite broad­cast­ers.

She was do­ing her Masters in Phi­los­o­phy in Cork when she met New Zealand celebrity chef Peta Mathias.

“She was eat­ing at the res­tau­rant I worked at. It was owned by a Kiwi, so we had a lovely New Zealand wine list. Peta and I got talk­ing and she gave me her card in case I was ever in New Zealand.”

Not long after that meet­ing Noelle went back­pack­ing through Asia and ended up in New Zealand. She gave Peta a call and she very kindly picked Noelle up from the air­port, let her live in her house and even helped her find a job as a wait­ress at Auck­land’s pop­u­lar me­dia lunch haunt, Prego.

Noelle fell in love with New Zealand, went back to uni­ver­sity here and vol­un­teered at the cam­pus ra­dio sta­tion 95bFM.

“There I met like-minded peo­ple and there was so much scope to do in­ter­est­ing work sur­rounded by enor­mously funny and clever peo­ple like Jeremy Wells and Paul Casserly.”

She stayed in New Zealand for 10 years, then re­turned to Ire­land for 18 months before com­ing back with her boyfriend John, with whom she had just spent five months in France while he was get­ting his first novel, The Fixer, ready for pub­li­ca­tion in 2013. The cou­ple plans to marry next year.

But Noelle will no longer be work­ing at Ra­dio New Zealand. With Sum­mer Noelle at an end, the pop­u­lar broad­caster has de­cided to find other work to keep her stim­u­lated.

“This pod­cast se­ries has set me up beau­ti­fully to work in a way that jour­nal­ists are in­creas­ingly be­ing called on to work – across print, tele­vi­sion, video, live events and more. I can now tell sto­ries in lots of dif­fer­ent ways so I want to keep do­ing that,” she says.

“I was so lucky that Ra­dio New Zealand gave me the chance to break new ground with this pod­cast and that they gave me such in­cred­i­ble scope to do what I wanted.”

As Noelle ap­proaches 40, she re­mains quite proud of her grand­mother, who lied so much about her age that when she died they had to hunt for a birth cer­tifi­cate before do­ing her grave­stone.

“I ad­mit I tried not to think much about age­ing before I did this pod­cast, but now I see what’s go­ing to hap­pen. As Bette Davis said, old age is not for sissies.” A Wrin­kle in Time can be found on­line at ra­ pro­grammes/a-wrin­kle-in-time and it also plays on RNZ Sun­day Morn­ing at 11.30am un­til Au­gust 28.

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