When I get old and losing my hair …

Today the IWA launches a new study called Adding Life to Years

Extended old age is a modern phenomenon, and a tremendous achievement for contemporary society. It should be a matter for celebration but we often talk about it as a problem. Older People are a Problem is the title of one of our leading novelists, Emyr Humphreys’ recent works. Inevitably, older people pick up the message that they are a burden on society, overcrowding the health service and so on. In many ways, however, the reverse is true. Older people are a huge asset to society, providing most of the volunteers that sustain the third sector. To a large extent they are the most active part of our community. They are a huge resource to younger people growing up.

Ageing is one of the most important issues in public policy today. Wales, alongside other western nations, is experiencing a significant population shift towards greater numbers of older people, corresponding with fewer numbers of younger people as birth rates have fallen. This will have considerable effects at every level of society. As individuals we are likely to live longer and have longer periods of life spent in retirement, which will affect families and wider communities. Collectively, the provision and costs of public services, especially supporting people in their own homes and care home charges together with pension provision, present major challenges.

The report Adding Life to Years that we are publishing today explores specifically Welsh responses to these demographic changes, in particular the Welsh Government’s policy which has been developing in a number of innovative ways since 2003. That year saw the appointment of a Minister for Older People which was followed by legislation for the appointment of a Commissioner for Older People, thought to be the first of its kind in Europe. Indeed, these interventions led some commentators to observe that Wales was “leading the world” in its vision and strategy for older people. Certainly, the initiatives have opened up many possibilities for innovative approaches to policy. This paper is aimed at contributing to the debate on how some of these might be taken forward. Specifically, it engages with the emerging agenda of the Older People’s Commissioner herself, Ruth Marks. How best can she marshal the resources at her disposal? What should be her priorities? How best can she balance responding to immediate pressures with putting effort into influencing longer-term issues?

A major theme of the report is that society as a whole needs to re-think its attitude to ageing and see the process in more positive terms than is generally the case. Faced with contemporary culture’s obsession with youth and celebrity this will be no easy task. However, everyone has an interest in participating in this debate. For whoever we are and whatever we do, we are all ageing. In the future older age will be a much bigger proportion of our lives and one in which we will look for the same quality of life as when we were younger. Moreover, we will need the particular contribution older people can make if we are to adjust successfully to the changing balance of society.

The challenge is to persuade society more generally to take a holistic view of ageing, and regard life more as a seamless process which should be understood as a whole rather than segmented into, for example, Shakespeare’s seven ages. In his romantic comedy As You Like It the playwright suggested that “All the world’s a stage” on which in our time we play many parts, beginning with “the infant, Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms …”, and ending with:

“… second childishness and mere oblivion,

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”.

Undeniably, such attitudes are deeply embedded. Yet unless they change we will continue to devalue the later years of life, rather than seeing them as much a vital, indeed as essential an experience as any other, a continuum in which every part is part of the whole and a preparation for what follows.

It is noteworthy, therefore, that this was acknowledged by Welsh policy makers from the start of the Welsh Government’s new thinking about ageing. So, for example, in their 2002 report When I’m 64 … and more, the Advisory Group on a Strategy for Older People, observed:

“At any point in our lives we should be able to look back at our contributions and achievements, but also to look forward to those contributions we have yet to make, the achievements still to come … older people are usually considered against the context of their past, rather than their future.”

And earlier they argued that a change of culture towards older people is needed:

“Our vision for an ageing society in Wales must deal with the whole of society rather than breaking it down into separate parts”.

Only if we make this kind of shift in our thinking will we have a chance of preparing effectively for the demographic challenges that will confront our children, grandchildren and their children.

It is no coincidence that the Welsh Government’s Advisory Group called their report When I’m 64. It is, of course, the title of one of the Beatles’ most famous songs that would have been held in the minds of most members of the Advisory Group whose formative years were spent during the 1960s. The lyrics were published in June 1967, part of perhaps the Beatles’ most successful album, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band:

When I get old and losing my hair

When I’m sixty-four

Will you still be sending me a valentine?

Birthday greetings, bottle of wine …

More than 40 years later these lyrics reveal an intriguing view of ageing from the perspective of young people who were in their twenties in the 1960s. For them to be 64 was to be ‘getting old’. Yet today the 67-year-old author of the song, Sir Paul McCartney, is still composing, still performing, is still a global celebrity, still has a full head of hair, and continues to be much photographed alongside his latest girlfriend, 49-year-old Nancy Shevell.

So ageing is, indeed, very much a matter of perspective. How would Sir Paul define “getting old” today? Might he place the phenomenon as starting somewhere in his eighties? In other words for today’s generation in their sixties, ‘getting old’ is probably much further on than they imagined it would be when they were in their twenties. A problem with such speculation is that it is simply that: “getting old” is just another phase in our unknowable future. As Jan Morris put it, in her Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere (2001), as you enter old age “you feel you are treading unknown territory, leaving your own land behind you”. This is part of what ageing is, but at the same time it does have some predictable challenges.

It does not prevent us wondering what getting old will be like, maybe worrying about it, and if we are sensible planning to position ourselves to avoid the pitfalls and give ourselves the best chance for a fulfilling old age. We may choose to enhance our pension contributions, take stock of our lifestyle choices, and think about how manageable our situation may be if we become less fit. Of course, being human we may also observe that mainly it is other people who are ‘getting old’, especially our relatives, rather than ourselves.

One of the great benefits of inter-generational communication is that it can provide insights for younger people to counter-act the overwhelmingly negative image that ageing generally has. A recent study by Age Concern England in 2006  found that half of all people under the age of 24 have no friends over 70, and vice versa. The same data showed that those without intergenerational friendships are also more likely to hold negative beliefs about the competence of people over 70.

It is hard to project notions of a ‘good old age’ in a society so obsessed with youth culture. Against this, many prevalent images of ‘getting old’ are over-associated with infirmity and illness, as the Welsh Government’s Advisory Group put it:

“Many older people are fit and healthy and want to be valued for their potential to contribute now and in the future, rather than being seen only in the context of their past. However, old age is seen typically as a process of infirmity and illness. This is replicated throughout society, for example the road sign warning of old people crossing the road shows two hunched old people, both leaning on sticks.”

Yet, even with much older people, the reality can be quite different. In his late eighties at the turn of the 21st Century, the late Professor John Lewis, who originally hailed from Bedwas in the Rhymney Valley, now lived alone in a small house in a Somerset village, having moved from Penarth to be near his son. He was virtually house bound. Yet within the confines of his limited surroundings he managed to live a rich and varied life, and was a source of humour, advice and delight to all who visited him, which of course made them visit often.

Professor Lewis was attached to the Institute of Education at the University of London, but spent most of his life abroad, in Africa and the Far East. Qualifying in chemistry from Cardiff University in the 1930s he became a teacher and then head teacher in Nigeria, and subsequently taught in a university in Ghana. On the transition to Zimbabwe’s independence in the early 1980s he was invited to become Vice Chancellor of the country’s National University. Later he became Vice Chancellor of the University of Papua New Guinea, only retiring in his late seventies. By the time he reached his late eighties his second wife had died and illness meant he was rarely able to leave his home.

However, his time was filled with activities, planned out with meticulous thoroughness from week to week. Mornings would be spent reading the papers and journals – he subscribed to the Literary Review, the Times Literary Supplement, and the London Review of Books – listening to a set piece of music on his Bose system, and dealing with correspondence. The afternoon would be set aside for a programme of reading. Although a scientist his main interests by this time were the humanities, and especially history. He was collecting and reading the complete works of the Dutch Renaissance humanist Erasmus. These took up some 100 volumes, the later ones yet to be completed, and he hoped to be still alive by the time the final volume was published. Evenings would be devoted to television documentaries and dramas, some recorded, and more music. And, of course there would be visits, from family and later nurses on a regular basis to deal with his medical needs. It is true to say that all who visited him looked forward to doing so, found him a delight and a source of much counsel.

It might be argued, with some justification, that Professor Lewis was an unusual man, an intellectual with many rich and varied experiences to draw upon, and so hardly typical. So what lessons can be drawn from the way he conducted his last years for the discussion being developed here? There are at least three. First, and most important, he provided an inspiration for all who knew him of how even a seemingly restrictive older age can be a life well worth living, with constant sources of interest and engagement. Secondly, he was a man of some resilience, a quality that is gaining currency as an essential resource for ageing that should be cultivated in younger people. Finally for all these reasons, and despite many vicissitudes of health, he remained until very close to his end, staunchly independent, and a fount of much wisdom.

John Osmond is Director the IWA. Adding Life to Years is available from the IWA at £10.

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