I’m reading an entertaining book at the moment, the autobiography of Dr Oliver Sacks. He’s led a rather colourful and rich life, and about halfway through it he casually mentions “I’m writing this now at eighty years old….” Which took me a bit by surprise because his “voice” in the book is that of a man half that age, or younger.
The other week I posted about the potential “Golden Years” of retirement and how time seems to rush you towards them. That’s maybe not an issue when you’re quietly planning to have the money, the health and the fitness levels to enjoy the time, but an opinion piece by David Aaronivitch in The Times gave another side of the story. He related how he was worried about the lack of GP’s within the NHS because, in his fifties, he needed to see his own doctor three times a month. This was increasingly difficult because of the pressure of people wanting to make a similar appointment. Projecting forward, in the years to come he could only see that he would need to see his doctor even more frequently, but would that be possible? (although in twenty years they might be seeing a computer generated hologram instead of Dr Findlay.)
Now I’m lucky in that I don’t visit my GP three times a year, but when I do I notice that the surgery is bursting at the seams with pensioners. It’s difficult not to look around the Waiting Room and feel a bit overwhelmed – this is what is coming to you. Maybe not today, maybe not in the next ten years even, or twenty, but eventually, no matter how often you’re down the gym, Old Age is going to take its toll. Unless, of course, you drop dead on the treadmill (which would serve you right.)
What can we do about it? Perhaps we could start by discussing the situation more. “Old age is not for wimps”, said Mrs Bush, but we need to brace ourselves and face our fears. Then we might be able to plan some sort of strategy to deal with them. After all, we’re moving into a new era when so many more people will be living into their eighties and nineties that society will have to find answers to some of the challenges this will bring.
I feel there is already a growing debate about pensions as, typically, the focus on money takes precedence in our society. Hot on its heels, and very much related to cash, is the growing burden of the elderly on the NHS. Occasionally you see a documentary about care homes but you have to brace yourself for an hour or so of misery and looking at the downsides. However this would still be upbeat compared to a BBC documentary I tried to watch on loneliness, which was almost too sad to sit through.
I sometimes feel that the media spin on the elderly is pretty negative. One of the positive things about the American election, I think, is that both Hillary and Donald are pushing seventy – whatever you may think of them (and I’m sure it can’t be much) surely they’re a great advert for what old age might look like? Full of energy, mental stimulation and motivation. At this age you might expect the question to be asked more often – are they really fit for the job? Of course, the answer to that is “No”, but the positive thing is it’s not their age that is the determinant factor.
Another positive area that I comfort myself with is that my generation are growing old with (hopefully) a grasp on technology that can support them in their older years. I often think of how the lives of my elderly relatives would be transformed if they could just get their heads around the internet – I think they’d love to know how to use Facebook properly, or master supermarket home shopping or find the best way to use the adjustable typeface of a Kindle or ipad. There are some terrific online “Meals on Wheels” services, transport options, instructive videos on Youtube, podcasts, music services, topical forums….you could go on and on and on, and I really hope my generation do. It’s just a shame that I see so many of the generation before me intimidated instead of intrigued by computing technology (and I have tried, and tried, to help my own folks in this area with pretty much zero success.)
I also hope that technology can help tackle what I feel is the biggest scourge of old age, namely isolation and loneliness. I’m hoping that the combination of Uber type services and driverless cars will make transport an easy option for everyone in society, and that it will become easier for the elderly to get out and about on their own. Virtual networks are fine, but they can’t really touch physical social networks, and it would be a dismal society if the former replaced the latter. Again, I know from experience, that the loss of the ability to use a car can be a major blow to an elderly person and can massively shrink their horizon. Of course they get free bus passes, but is anyone less qualified to use a bus than the majority of people over seventy five?
I often think that it has been fantastic to live through the dawning of the Internet and Information age, but it’s more our attitudes that need to change than our technologies. After all, before we had the Internet we had telephones to get in touch, we had buses and taxis to hand, we wrote letters instead of e-mailing and we had the TV and radio before Youtube and podcasts. The Internet is fantastic but it’s maybe not as transformational as people like to think – or maybe as people are allowing it to be. I like to imagine that two hundred years from now, this era will be seen to have driven more change than the Agricultural and Industrial age, and that it will have happened on a global stage in a positive way. But, from a more selfish point of view, I’d like to transform my own attitude toward ageing and actively seek out more positive approaches to it. The internet might help me to do this, but I know in my own mind that it’s me and not technology that will have to do the real work.