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Old age is a lottery with too few winners

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No one nowadays should be regarded as old until they’re nearly 90, a German friend of mine remarked this week.


He was explaining why he’s writing yet another biography of Winston (“the only thing Germans know about him is 1940”) Churchill. My friend is a vigorous 75. Well past his sell-by date, Churchill was still PM at 80 and died at 90 despite the brandy and cigars.

It’s a lovely thought but it runs counter to yet another prediction that caring for the very old and ill – not to mention keeping the functioning old in their homes – is a care tsunami which could overwhelm local services and the tax base.

Reaping the fruit of its “one child” policy, China faces the same problem as the West.

You reach an age - I’m definitely in it now - when conversation is all too often about the newly dead and dying.

My wife’s Kiwi aunt, who stayed with us again this year, is 91 and has a toy-boy (he’s 80 and ardent), still drives although she forgets where she parked the car after playing bridge, and keeps asking “what are we doing today?”

She’s one of the lucky ones all the same. Her sister (93) is mentally sharper, but physically housebound, albeit in sight of the Pacific.

‘They keep us alive too long’

I’m constantly struck by the capriciousness of it all. I have a friend, younger than me, who is dying of an unfixable cancer while his parents, well into their 90s, soldier on in a home (no longer their own) physically strong, but their once-highly-cerebral minds shot. When he stops visiting, will they understand why? We’ll find out.

Years ago my friend’s mum, already half blind but still capable, protested “they keep us alive too long now”.

And they do too.

“I’m happy to let someone else have the last 10 per cent of my time,” says another acquaintance. But you can never tell. Our friends John and Mary who retired to rural France got trapped when they failed to sell their home and return to family in the UK. Fine, until she had a stroke.

Largely immobile, he couldn’t manage alone so they both went into hospital where she, unhappy about not being in control, quickly died.

John (89) is stranded in the care home attached to the local hospital which takes most of his pension but looks after him pretty well with his single room piled with books. “Better off than I’d be at home from what I hear,” he confided when we visited him in July. Odd for France, but John’s gripe is the food: too much pasta.

Sheer exhaustion

I could go on and probably so could you. Another old friend, once a famous TV face, no longer has to hand a card to people who used to recognise him on the street: “Yes, I’m XY, but can no longer speak since my last stroke.”

Instead he runs his elderly wife ragged at home. Sheer exhaustion with his temper forced Rose to put once-gentle Robert into a home, but only after they’d moved to Somerset to be closer to their children whose marriages they put under a strain. Rose is lonely and blind, Robert says “Why won’t they let me have a iPad?” Because they’re afraid what you’ll do with it, Bob.

All the people cited here are relatively well off. So was Margaret Thatcher, who died in the Ritz with no family at her bedside. Plenty do better than that, but we’re still getting it wrong, emotionally, medically, financially.

I find the Dignitas man from Switzerland rather chilling, and peers who block assisted dying bills insist it’s a slippery slope.

But we can’t go on like this.

Michael White writes about politics for the Guardian

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