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The Telegraph – We need a new way to talk about old age

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Older people are as different as any other age group, so we need to move away from a patronising ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, says Glenda Cooper.

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The American philanthropist Bernard Baruch once said that old age was always 15 years older than he was. It was a saying that my great‑great-uncle, Griffith R Williams, took to extremes.

At the age of 106, he was still living at home in north Wales by himself, making an eight-mile round trip on the bus twice a week, and he attributed his good health to smoking four ounces of St Bruno pipe tobacco per day. A former quarryman who had started work aged 13, he had busied himself since his 100th birthday by writing his autobiography, Cofio Canrif: A Century Remembered (when it was published, he entered the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s oldest living author, aged 102), and taking his first flight, appropriately enough, to a Buckingham Palace garden party. He would tell us proudly that he had managed to delay the Queen at an earlier meeting at Powis Castle (he said he had found her as easy to talk to “as anyone in the street”) by reminiscing about her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria.

Uncle Griff, who finally died at the age of 108, would probably have nodded in agreement at last week’s headlines that “90 is the new 70”. Today there are many more potential Uncle Griffs among us: the latest life expectancy figures reveal that the biblical allotted three-score years and 10 has changed to four-score years and 10 in some areas.

Encouragingly, the long-held North-South divide in life expectancy seems to be narrowing, and the gulf in lifespans between men and women is also closing. Which is all to be praised, but it raises the question: do we know what to do with all those extra years we’ve been granted?

Mariella Frostrup, the TV presenter, certainly had some suggestions about what the younger end of the spectrum – the frisky fifties – were up to. She shared the results of a survey done by High50 magazine, which claimed that 40 per cent of the over-fifties had sex twice a week, and a sizeable minority took recreational drugs.

Yet behind all the chutzpah that Frostrup displayed, declaring the over-fifties to be the new “in crowd”, there was a small but telling anecdote. She admitted that since she turned 50, she had been offered only half as much work.

If Frostrup, former Booker judge, friend of George Clooney and household name in her own right, sees the work drying up, then there’s not much hope for the rest of us. As she points out: “Ageism remains the last acceptable frontier of discrimination in almost every walk of life.”

Certainly, there seems to be a problem with the way we approach getting old. We talk continually about a “crisis” in the ageing population, and we define it almost exclusively in terms of health and social care, not helped by potent images of a hospital trust last week using anti‑trespass laws to evict elderly patients accused of “bed‑blocking”.

The cumulative effect is that we too often portray an older generation as a great homogeneous mass of those who are not seen as ageing – for everyone ages – but who have dared to “get old”, with its connotations of decay and decrepitude, cluttering up bus stops and surgeries, and slowing down our frenetic lives.

In fact, while no one doubts that we need to adapt the social care system, with the number of over-85s due to double by 2030, one of the biggest problems we have is still not being able to distinguish between calendar and biological age.

Older people are as different as any other age group, and so we need to move away from a patronising “one size fits all” approach, and offer choice and flexibility in how they live. The removal of the mandatory retirement age was a great step forward in acknowledging that people’s usefulness does not evaporate when a significant birthday is reached.

But most of all, we need to move away from the kind of alienating rhetoric of which too many in public life are guilty. This presents older people purely in terms of a social or financial burden. I winced when patients at Bournemouth and Christchurch Hospital, which is planning the legal action, were referred to as being “fed and watered and looked after”, as if they were automatons – and headlines that told families “you’ve got seven days to take your elderly home”. If you want to meet the challenges of an ageing society, you cannot afford to do it without the support of those who are ageing themselves.

And there is much for a younger generation to learn. A major study in 2010 found that the age at which participants felt happiest was not as a teenager or even in their forties, but at the age of 74. There may be a secret the older generation aren’t telling us that we could learn from.

Anyway, as Uncle Griff, who briefly considered a third trip up the aisle in his eighties, might tell both us and them, they haven’t seen anything yet.


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