Juliet Dunlop: Living longer to have the dickens of a time

Juliet Dunlop
Juliet Dunlop
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TO BEGIN my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night.

It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry simultaneously.” And so, from the moment of his birth, we are introduced to the life, adventures and personal history of David Copperfield.

But if Dickens were writing about David today, he would have needed a few extra chapters. For David, despite all his misfortune, could expect to live to a ripe old age. There would be even more to pack in – more tragedy, more triumph and perhaps another wife. And if David had been born a girl, he would have needed longer still to ponder over a long and eventful past.

Because life, it appears, is no longer nasty, brutish and short. (There are days when it may feel like the first two apply, but for more of us it certainly isn’t the last.) It seems we have supped from the fountain of youth, stumbled upon the elixir of life, eaten enough and staved off enough, to live until we are genuinely old. Our advancing years are advancing.

Life has crept up on us and the statistics confirm it. Life expectancy has shot up and it shows no sign of running out of steam.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimates that 40 per cent of girls born in the UK this year can expect to reach 100. By 2060, it will have risen to 60 per cent – and boys are not far behind.

The royal family is already feeling the strain. When the tradition of sending a telegram to centenarians began in 1917, George V dispatched 24 of them. In 2011, the Queen sent nearly 10,000. If we keep going at this rate, 50 years from now a small plane will be needed to crop-dust retirement villages and old folks’ homes with birthday telegrams. One can only imagine the kind of fire hazard so many cakes blazing with 100 candles might create.

But as the celebratory smoke clears, and ever-increasing numbers chalk up a century, perhaps we should ask: where will it all end?

By its very nature, living longer can bring its own set of problems; infirmity, poverty, loneliness – to name but a few. And while better education and improved healthcare may help us survive childhood, what happens when we continue down the path towards our ever increasing dotage?

Writing in the British Medical Journal this week, economist John Appleby believes the ONS predictions may pose a dilemma.

While life expectancy has risen, healthy life expectancy has risen less sharply. He warns we may find ourselves “scrabbling for resources”. So is ageing, now more than ever, something to fear?

Certainly, more of us will suffer serious illness. But earlier diagnosis and improved treatments should mean some of the conditions we are worried about now, affect us less. And if we live longer, we will have to work longer. As the age of retirement creeps up, will 85 be the new 65 come 2060? Put it like that, and who could blame us for not even wanting to think about reaching 100?

The simpler option may be to focus instead on the here and now. We could do worse than look to someone who made the most of his very long life.

When he died earlier this month at the age of 110, Reg Dean was Britain’s oldest man. At his funeral this week, the male voice choir he’d founded when he was a sprightly 85, sang at the service.

His son remembered him as man who had helped others, had lived life to the full and had always had a sense of humour. He even liked to joke about dying. Reg once said that the secret of his longevity was being lazy, which in his case, was patently not true – he could have given David Copperfield a run for his money. But whether life is long or short – whether you receive a telegram or not – perhaps all you have to do is live long enough to enjoy it.