Happiness is a well stocked biscuit barrel! When Tessa's 95-year-old father moved in, he repaid her with a masterclass in life's simple pleasures

When my dear old Dad, aged 95, came to live with me five months ago, it was a steep learning curve for both of us.

Having broken his hip in a fall, he could no longer get out and about and was reliant on carers.

Until this point, he had lived alone and totally independently, happily playing golf and attending tea dances ever since my mum had died 15 years before.


Wise words: Tessa Cunningham has learnt a lot since her father Jim, 95, moved in with her

Of course, Dad — a proud veteran of the D-Day campaign — never put it into words.

But one afternoon, when I went to visit him, he held my hand a little too long as I made to leave, and I knew then that he was petrified of falling again. So the decision was made.

I wrote about the ups and downs of my new life with Dad for this newspaper. The response astonished me.

Hundreds of readers wrote to say they were going through exactly the same thing — or suspected they might be soon.

They wanted to know the pitfalls and the pleasures, how to make it work and what to look out for.

Since then, I’ve got used to being woken at ungodly hours by the Shipping Forecast blaring from his old Roberts radio.

I’ve also grown accustomed to changing hearing-aid batteries, washing mountains of handkerchiefs and stocking up on Bourbon biscuits and custard creams.

And if I still haven’t quite adjusted to having my afternoons interrupted by Noel Edmonds and Deal Or No Deal, I suspect it’s only a matter of time.

But the one thing I wasn’t expecting was just how much Dad would end up helping me. True, he can’t cook. He can’t wield a vacuum cleaner and his skills with the iron aren’t up to much. But he’s giving me something infinitely more precious: Dad’s teaching me how to get the most out of life.

After notching up almost 100 years, Dad remains determined to wring the most out of every second. And what a joy it is to behold.

I find myself being dragged along in the wake of his joie de vivre and soaking up the amazing lessons he’s teaching me on the way. So, it’s my pride and pleasure to bring you the Jim Cunningham guide to the art of happiness . . .


Dad’s perfected the art of forgetting everything he doesn’t care to remember. Living totally in the moment has the instant effect of turning the world into a much cheerier place, because it runs entirely according to his rules.

While I’m agonising over the phone call I should have returned yesterday, Dad is cheerfully checking the biscuit barrel. ‘We seem to have run out,’ he announces. ‘I wonder how that happened.’

I know full well the barrel was full only a few hours ago. But there’s no point remonstrating with him. He’s chosen to forget.

I’m trying to perfect the same art of forgetfulness with Chablis and Thorntons chocolates. And, gosh, does it make me happier!


Dad sleeps like a baby and greets every day with a grin of delighted surprise. In fact, he’d spring out of bed — if his damaged hip would let him. At 95, it’s no wonder that he’s thrilled still to be here.

Daddy's girl: A young Tessa with her father

Daddy's girl: A young Tessa with her father

But it’s not just joy at the unexpected pleasure of a long life. Dad makes the most of little pleasures — things I barely notice: a robin on the tree; a rainbow; or, joy of joys, a double bill of Deal Or No Deal. It’s definitely a lesson in counting one’s blessings.

The other day he announced suddenly ‘It’s Sunday, isn’t it? How about we enjoy a cream tea?’ as he cheerfully thrust £20 into my hand and asked me to get the best that Waitrose had to offer.

He brushed aside my objections that we’d barely finished lunch and smiled: ‘Life’s for living, darling.’ 


It’s almost impossible to believe now, but, as a teenager I’d cringe in embarrassment at the prospect of introducing Dad to a boyfriend. He was guaranteed to saddle up his high horse and launch into a pet prejudice. Long hair. Sideburns. Flared trousers.

They all sent Dad into a lather of suspicious distaste.

When he discovered his favourite newsreader had left his wife, Dad was so disgusted he would leap out of his chair to switch off the TV every time the culprit appeared.

But not any more. Dad is now a model of tolerant acceptance and smiles indulgently at my daughter’s flamboyant and artistic male friends who arrive attired in anything from brilliantly patchworked dungarees to theatrical black fedoras.

It certainly seems to make him happier than all that futile rage when I was a child. He’s now so sweet-natured we all want to please him.

Great all round — although some good old-fashioned intolerance wouldn’t go amiss when it comes to his granddaughter’s laddered tights and over-dyed hair.

Instead, all I get is an indulgent chuckle and the reminder: ‘Girls will be girls.’ Grrr!

Played his part: But Jim, pictured in his RAF squadron in Holland in 1944, doesn't wax lyrical about the war years

Played his part: But Jim, pictured in his RAF squadron in Holland in 1944, doesn't wax lyrical about the war years


After serving in the air force during World War II, Dad trained as a maths teacher and spent the next 40 years in the classroom.

He loved his job and was a great teacher if the number of former pupils, now well into middle age, who still greet him in the street is anything to go by.

But does he wax lyrical about his glorious days in the classroom? Not a bit of it. In fact, Dad never, ever mentions his working life. All his memories are of early married life and watching his children and grandchildren grow up.

Proof that no one in their twilight years wishes they’d spent more time in the office. It certainly helps put things into perspective whenever I get stressed about work.


Dad may now have trouble dressing himself, but that doesn’t diminish his determination to look smart. Last thing at night, he carefully picks out cords and a co-ordinating plaid shirt for the morning.

As a freelance writer, I used to slob around most days in jeans and an old sweatshirt, smug that at least I’d managed to get out of my PJs and wasn’t still wearing a shower cap.

But no longer. Shamed by Dad, I’ve smartened up and, to Dad’s smiling approval, think nothing of spending £200 on a Brora cashmere cardigan teamed with a Jigsaw skirt. And what a difference it makes.

Dad’s the best example you could wish for that if you take pride in your appearance you’ll feel a whole lot better about yourself.


Dad has mastered the art of rewriting history so well he could teach even the most skilled propagandists a thing or two. He does it so daringly and with such aplomb, it’s almost believable.

‘Don’t you remember the time you threatened to horsewhip my boyfriend for bringing me home after midnight?’ I’ll say.

Dad will look outraged. ‘No, dear that wasn’t me,’ he’ll reply. ‘I’m sure I’d remember something like that.’

I’m left feeling mean-spirited for having such a long memory — and convinced forgetfulness has a lot going for it. It’s certainly better than beating oneself up over past mistakes.


Although my parents were never rich, Dad’s always been generous and loved treating his family. But when he talks about the past, he never mentions the lovely Rover car he saved to buy or the holiday in Paris with Mum.

Instead, he dwells misty-eyed on the times when he and Mum were really hard up early in their marriage.

He regularly waxes lyrical about the wonderful honeymoon he enjoyed with Mum in 1944 in a guest house in Margate, where you had to be out of your room by 9am and couldn’t get near the sea because of the Dad’s Army-style barbed-wire barricades to deter enemy troops.

He still refers to those days as among the happiest of his life. When I’m desperately trying to pay the latest bill, I only have to listen to Dad to be reminded that money isn’t the be-all and end-all. 


Dad’s living proof you honestly are never too old to find a new passion. Totally out of the blue, he signed up for ballroom-dancing classes and took to the dance floor at the grand old age of 85.

‘It’s a great way of meeting people,’ he grinned.

And indeed it is. Dad found himself with a whole army of sprightly ladies — all a good 20 years younger than him — lining up to trip the light fantastic with him. And, although he’s had to abandon the dancing now, he’s still eager to meet new people.


At the risk of sounding soppy, Dad is a fantastic example of healthy pragmatism. He is fully aware that, at 95, his days are numbered. But does he dwell on it? Not a bit.

I don’t know whether it’s as a result of facing death for six long years during World War II, a general sense of a life well-lived or the total conviction in an afterlife where he will be reunited with Mum.

But Dad talks so calmly about death, he might as well be discussing the weather.

‘Are you at all scared, Dad?’ I once dared to ask him.

‘What on earth’s the point?’ he shot back. ‘I can’t do anything about it. And I’m sure I won’t feel a thing.’