Ageing and longevity have often been hotly discussed in my household. My other half has always held the view that if you aren’t fit and well there is no point in getting older – quality of life rather than quantity of years is what he wants for himself.
My view is that ageing and longevity are to be celebrated – ideally you would want those years to be in good health, and we should all aim for that, but as a so-called world-leading nation we should provide the care and support that our population needs in order to have the very best quality of life possible, regardless of age or personal circumstances.
Cue then Panorama’s ‘Life at 100’ programme following seven of around 14,500 centenarians in the UK. We watched this hour-long documentary together, and suffice to say that my other half was pleasantly surprised to see people in relative good health, some walking more than many people half their age, others with less wrinkles than he expected, and all with interesting perspectives on life, including actor Earl Cameron, aged 100, who said:
“I think I can be an asset. The world could learn a lot from people my age.”
Earl’s point really gets to the heart of why I’m so passionate about supporting older people and celebrating longevity. I first wrote about this in June 2012, when I said in a blog entitled ‘Loving our elders and betters’:
“When an older person dies it is as if a library has burnt down. Yet that library, that unique contribution that the older generation can make to our society, isn’t valued, tapped into or appreciated anywhere near enough while they are alive.”
In January 2013, for my ‘Celebrating longevity’ blog, I expanded on the idea of older people as an asset who could teach younger generations so much:
“Imagine if every wrinkle on an older person’s body represented a story to tell, an anecdote to recall, or a snippet of knowledge or advice that could change the course of a younger person’s life for the better? In our commercialised society, a ‘product’ capable of providing information of that magnitude AND entertaining the recipient would have a very high value indeed. Yet so many older people don’t feel valued, and for everyone who might celebrate their existence, there will be others who feel that they are an unnecessary burden.”
That point about burden is never far away when you speak about ageing and longevity. For all the positive, celebratory examples of life at 100+ in the Panorama programme, they were also quick to point out that everyone they featured in the programme was receiving support from the state in the form of pensions and/or benefits, with only one lady having significant assets of her own.
Then, of course, there is the increasing dependence on the NHS and social care that so many people associate with ageing. We only managed to get 15 minutes into the Panorama programme before presenter Joan Bakewell said:
“It’s estimated the NHS in England spends over £9b a year caring for people over 85. That’s 8.5% of the budget on just over 2% of the population.”
The programme went on to feature an operation on a 95-year-old lady with a fractured hip, who survived the operation but died 2 weeks later from pre-existing heart problems. The underlying message was that it’s expensive for the NHS to provide the care that older people need, and the urgency that is associated with acute care for our older generations can often mean that younger citizens wait longer for treatment.
Sadly, what the programme didn’t point out is that if we had a health AND care service fit for the modern age that provides the community-based social care support that people need, we would significantly reduce the current 750,000 people over 85 having falls, with the 30,000 hip fractures those falls produce that lead onto the costly healthcare interventions older people are blamed for needing.
I’ve always been a firm believer that prevention is better than cure, and if good social care was available on prescription it would be the best preventative ‘medicine’ available, and not just for older generations, given predictions that the childhood obesity crisis will lead to more children becoming ill and dying before their parents.
For those who remain healthy, one-in-three babies born today can expect to live to 100 and beyond. Our daughter is nearly 2 years old – who knows if one day she too will be a centenarian, but in the meantime I hope she will develop my passion for celebrating ageing and longevity.
Interestingly, I think some of that passion is even rubbing off on my other half. Such was the power of Earl’s appearance on Panorama, he now wants me to arrange to take Earl and his wife Barbara out to lunch.
So Earl, if our invitation reaches you, we very much hope you’ll accept.