Tiffany Jenkins: We must stop falling for the same old story
THE elderly are treated as a scapegoat for society’s failures, but we should celebrate long life, not condemn it, writes Tiffany Jenkins
IT’S come to a pretty poor pass when even veteran war-correspondents talk about killing themselves.
I was shocked this week, reading a newspaper interview with the reporter John Simpson. Simpson, now 67, moved in with a pensioner and visited a care home for dementia patients, for a new BBC series When I Get Older. Old age, he commented is “pretty much round the next corner” and he was hoarding pills which, should he lose control of his mental and physical faculties, would allow him to commit suicide.
It may have been an edited selection designed to get attention, but it is noteworthy that the publicity for a TV programme on getting old highlighted the cause of assisted dying. This isn’t to be naïve about the difficulties for those who are seriously ill, but to highlight this issue as one of the recurring preoccupations concerning getting on verges on doom mongering.
Across a range of topics including longer life expectancy, falling fertility, the perceived long-term care needs of older people and pensions, there is increased attention paid to the consequences of our ageing society. What unites them is the notion that an ageing future is something we should be very worried about.
Terms such as an “ageing time bomb” have been bandied about with abandon. Yet heightened concerns both hide the truth about what it is to be old today – it’s so much better than before – and hamper the response.
The assault on the baby boomer generation, from many quarters, is the major problem. On Radio 4, in the Reith Lectures, the historian Niall Ferguson lambasted this age group for the economic crisis, arguing it was their profligacy that generated huge debt. He is far from alone. One of the most important and explicit fingerings of this generation has come from the conservative politician David Willetts, in his book The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future – And Why They Should Give it Back. Willetts argues that “now the bills are coming in” and “it is the younger generation who will pay them”.
This outlook underlies the now common view of the ageing population as a social catastrophe, where the costs of looking after the boomers are seen as an unfair burden on future generations. It’s an outlook that needs questioning. For a start, this generation were – and still are – creative people who have made a strong contribution to our lives. But the main problem with this analysis is that it blames demographic changes for problems that are not solely down to demographics.
According to this logic economic stagnation is not the failures of markets, or politicians to act, but the consequence of greedy old folk who will soon be bed blockers.
It is no surprise that this outlook appeals to the political class for it lets them off the hook. More seriously, it naturalises the problems we do face, putting their cause down to population trends, and thus not really open to positive solutions. There is a demographic determinism at play that limits our imagination in relation to how we do deal with an ageing population and other social questions. It also implicitly suggests to the elderly and their families that they are a burden. Could this make the infirm feel under-appreciated and subtly encourage the hoarding of pills?
Besides, all the negative headlines hide an important truth. Buried away last month was news that suggests even for the very old things are not all that gloomy. Professor Tom Kirkwood, dean for ageing at Newcastle University, published a study into the health of more than 1,000 older people in the 85-plus generation, which revealed that they are much happier, and more independent, than is generally thought. And, remarkably 80 per cent of a fair sample of the UK population needed little care.
It is a narrative of progress. Over the last century, the life span of the human race has dramatically increased, and continues to do so. In 2010, average life expectancy at birth across the UK, for both men and women, rose by another four months to 78.2 and 82.3 years respectively. Even with the “Glasgow effect” there is a rise, although it remains significantly lower than richer parts of the country.
It is hard to imagine what it was like when death was a continuous presence, hovering over everyone – young and old, rich and poor.
It is impossible not to be moved by the response to what historians term the “dying of death”; when public health reforms, better diet and living standards, and the fall in mortality from infectious diseases, meant people began to live beyond what had been an average age of forty.
In 1899, an article in the periodical Fortnightly Review noted: “The practical disappearance of the thought of death as an influence bearing directly upon life”. The author celebrated this progress: “The fear of death is being replaced by the joy of life”, he declared, “full life is here and now is the demand”.
Paradoxically, while there is more to be joyful about in the 21st century, our society, it would seem, finds it hard to value old age, to affirm the gains of being older and give it some kind of validation. There is a continual association between ageing and negative impacts and problems that, while holding some truth – a growing ageing population certainly presents new challenges – would appear to greatly exaggerate those problems.
It is also important to value the lives of those who are seriously ill.
Human life – whatever its state or condition – is of moral worth and should never be seen as a burden. In seeking to blame the old for today’s woes, many ignore their happy and healthy reality, and evade addressing population trends and serious social problems. For the sake of all our futures, it is time to rediscover the joy of life.
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Wednesday 22 May 2013
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