Older People: thoughts on living longer

One day a year, it’s international ‘older people’s day’.  An interesting – and presumably deliberate – choice of words to talk of ‘older people’, rather than ‘old people’ or ‘the elderly’. This turn of language prompts some questions about what we mean by ‘older’. What is ‘older’? Who are these ‘older people’?

Of course, we’re all ‘older’ – you and I are all older than we were yesterday. And we will keep being older all our lives – presumably until the point where we are simply ‘old’: the point when the relative becomes absolute.

Older People’s Day is about raising awareness of the issues related to ageing. It aims to be a day to ‘respond to the opportunities and challenges of population ageing in the 21st century and to promote the development of a society for all ages’. (OPD Website)

The World Health Organisation (WHO) declares that: “Most developed world countries have accepted the chronological age of 65 years as a definition of ‘elderly’ or older person, but like many westernized concepts, this does not adapt well to the situation in Africa. While this definition is somewhat arbitrary, it is many times associated with the age at which one can begin to receive pension benefits. At the moment, there is no United Nations standard numerical criterion, but the UN agreed cutoff is 60+ years to refer to the older population.

Although there are commonly used definitions of old age, there is no general agreement on the age at which a person becomes old. The common use of a calendar age to mark the threshold of old age assumes equivalence with biological age, yet at the same time, it is generally accepted that these two are not necessarily synonymous.”

In other words, the term ‘older’ is relative to where in the world we are born and where we live and the kind of life opportunities open to us.  These are the conditions of birth that drive our life expectancy.  WHO use 50 to mean ‘older’ in global terms.

Respect for one’s elders used to be a given in pretty much every culture. This may have brought with it some rather brutal or disparaging attitudes to the young. The Victorian approach to children being visible but inaudible (‘seen and not heard’), for example, indicated a clear age-based hierarchy. But, it also brought a healthy regard for those of mature years.  This is less so now. Arguably, the young and vigorous attract respect; the ‘older’ and less vital are often viewed as a burden; a problem; or just out of touch.

We have an increasingly top-heavy population. The ‘younger’ have a growing duty to carry the ‘older’. And this duty is increasing. How much carrying will our children and grandchildren have to do? How much tax and NI will we have to pay to support the NHS and state pensions? How long will you have to work before you can retire? Will the notion of retirement disappear altogether?

Living beyond 100 will become the norm in your children’s generation, according to projections from the ONS. Within two decades, the average (that’s the average) life expectancy of a new born girl in UK will be 97 years and 4 months. Baby boys born in 2037 should expect to live, on average, to the age of 94. By 2057, the average life expectancy for a female will be 100. Average. You could consider yourself unlucky not to reach 100. For boys, that mark will be reach in 2080, according to the ONS.

The key, though, is not just life expectancy but healthy life expectancy. That is, being ‘older’ and yet being independent, healthy, mobile etc. Not just being alive but being able to live. This is increasing at a lesser rate. In other words, the old will become more and more dependent on the young. For longer.

We might feel that, being ‘younger’, these issues are not relevant. Older People Day might prompt us to reach out more to the ‘older’ population. Or it might, out of pure self-interest, spark a realization that the decisions, policies and attitudes that we promote and allow in our youth, will come back to affect us in our old age. When it comes to getting older, we will reap what we sow. And the reaping season will be longer than the sowing season.

So, thinking about older people, and issues to do with ageing, is in all of our interest.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s