Thursday, 28 April 2011

Still no cure for the common birthday

"Nobody grows old merely by living a number of years.  We grow old by deserting our ideals.  Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul."  Samuel Ullman

Walking down the High Street always provides entertainment - cognitive if not always comic.  On a recent amble something caught my eye, as I saw a rather aggressive mother pushing her super smart buggy (is that the correct term, and what is the difference between a buggy, and a push chair, and does anyone have a pram these days?) complete with very happy looking child on board, overtaking someone with more wisdom and experience who was pushing her own four wheeled apparatus, in the form of a shopping trolley. 

Within this quite ordinary, and in many ways quite unremarkable scene, there was so much - about life, and our passage through it.  The young mother, busily going about her day - cramming in the shopping, having fed her infant, walked the dog, and was now racing to meet friends (with similarly grand infant-carriers) for coffee.  In front of her, taking things at an altogether more sedate pace, was a lady belonging to a different life stage - perhaps trying to remember what it was that she came out for or working out whether she had enough in her purse to buy what she needed. 

I wondered whether, with the passing of time, our mode of existing changes, and we naturally (or essentially) become less concerned with doing, and are more interested in being.  Knowing neither of them I found myself in the position of a detached observer with the privilege of witnessing not only the representative younger generation 'catching up' with someone their senior, but 'over taking' and in doing so displaying a sense of entitlement communicated without words, but energetically displayed for anyone to see should they happen to notice. 

The population of the UK is aging.  Over the last 25 years the percentage of the population aged 65 and over increased from 15 per cent in 1984 to 16 per cent in 2009, an increase of 1.7 million people.  Over the same period, the percentage of the population aged under 16 decreased from 21 per cent to 19 per cent. This trend is projected to continue.  By 2034, 23 per cent of the population is projected to be aged 65 and over compared to 18 per cent aged under 16.

We know this, but do we connect with this?  Moment to moment, there are more of us living longer.  We are living at a time when the oldest old are the fastest growing population, with far reaching consequences at a societal level.  The fastest population increase has been in the number of those aged 85 and over, the “oldest old”.  In 1984, there were around 660,000 people in the UK aged 85 and over.  Since then the numbers have more than doubled reaching 1.4 million in 2009. By 2034 the number of people aged 85 and over is projected to be 2.5 times larger than in 2009, reaching 3.5 million and accounting for 5 per cent of the total population.

The statistics speak for themselves.  As a result of these increases in the number of older people, the median age of the UK population is increasing.  Over the past 25 years the median age increased from 35 years in 1984 to 39 years in 2009.  It is projected to continue to increase over the next 25 years rising to 42 by 2034.  With the average age set to increase, how will we define "middle aged"?

"You are as young as your faith, as old as your doubt; as young as your self-confidence, as old as your fear; as young as your hope, as old as your despair."  Douglas MacArthur

This issue is making its way onto the public agenda, and being considered from a politico-economic perspective, but it struck me that some of the thinking will inevitably happen at an individual level.  It is not now uncommon for 4 or even 5 generations of a family to share time on Earth, and yet we have progressed a long way from the 'nuclear' family.  

Times are changing.  Radically so.  Social care is necessarily under review and will (with any luck) be revised in light of the population trends, and resultant demographics.  Where does all of this leave the 'average family'?  Where does it leave those who are living longer, but are apt to fall off the agenda, as they maybe lack access to the resources us sprightly young things take for granted?
My seemingly insignificant decision to pop to the shops opened Pandora's Box (I almost forgot what it was that I had gone for)...  What I saw, as the two women struggled for space on the pavement struck me hard.  Existential issues are never easy to face let alone explore, least of all early on a weekday morning (before sufficient coffee) but perhaps seeing the small, haggard, slightly dishevelled, or disorientated old lady threatened at a deep, and unconscious level, the omnipotence of the young seemingly-has-it-all mother.  How long will any of this last?  Is there enough to go round?  What is the discrepancy between those of us living longer lives, and those living longer healthy, and fulfilled lives, in which they feel safe and comfortable?

"When I was young, I thought that money was the most important thing in the world.  Now I'm old, I know that it is."  Oscar Wilde

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