Tuesday, 28 September 2010

"I can't dig the garden like I used to..." - some thoughts on getting older.

I thought that, for a change, I’d write about getting old. And how our attitude to age – and the process of getting older – changes and evolves. But first a little story from my Mum.

Many years ago – back in the 1970s – my Mum delivered meals-on-wheels in and around Penge. On one of the rounds there was a couple called Mr & Mrs Squirrel. Rest assured that these are human squirrels rather than the beady-eyed, bushy-tailed variety. Now Mr & Mrs Squirrel were well into their nineties – which back then was deifinitely a ripe old age – and lived in a sizeable house in Sydenham (or rather that bit of Penge that folk liked to call Sydenham so as to avoid using the ‘P’ word).

On one occasion, my Mum was delivering Mr & Mrs Squirrel’s dinner and she got to chatting with Mister. He explained how – it being a nice day and all – he had been out in the garden pottering about. After a few minutes chatting about the garden (my Mum being an especially keen gardener), Mr Squirrel complained that:

“I can’t dig the garden like I used to.”

And therein lies the point. This elderly – very elderly – gentleman refused to accept that the things he did in days past were no longer possible. Digging the garden may take a little longer, he might not be able to dig as deep or turn as much soil but we’re going to dig! And so it should be.

However, as we age, society still expects us to become less able and more dependent until we reach a point when in our dribbling, dotage others must care for us entirely. And much planning for this seems to assume that old age begins at 50.

I’m not joking here – nor am I moaning about the rapidity at which my 50th birthday approaches. Planning for services assumes that someone aged 51 has similar needs to someone aged 97 (ceteris paribus). Housing strategies for older people begin at 50. Saga holidays begin at 50. We are old at 50!

Except we’re not. Old that is – not even remotely old. Most 50 year olds in England can expect to live at least another 30 years – nearly all of those years independent and active. While three of my four grand parents were dead by the age of 76, my son’s grandparents are all alive and all past that age (with three passed 80). And all those people are living in their own homes, driving their own cars, feeding themselves and getting on with enjoying life. In truth they place a little more of a burden on health services – the jokes about rattling with pills do apply – but they are not old in the way previous generations were old.

All this is a good thing – unquestionably. But costly. The entire system of pensions, healthcare and social care is predicated on most people dying in the ‘70s rather than – as will be more and more the case – in their ‘80s or even ‘90s. And, as medical and surgical interventions allow (wonderfully) further extension to active life, those costs will continue to rise.

The question for us all is how much longer the present system can last until it breaks beyond repair. We can’t carry on with the assumption that our property assets will remain undisturbed by the costs of old age. And we have to recognise that pension schemes beginning at ages below 60 are unsustainable. We must also question why we have not raised the retirement age for the ‘active’ professions – police, fire, army and so forth. Finally, we will get used to the idea of people working well into their ‘70s – perhaps not full time but working nonetheless.

The market – as we see from adverts, new products and the images of older people used therein – has already got there. Sadly, the public sector – and the delivery of its services – remains stuck in the 1970s. Time to catch up I guess?


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