The golden age of ageing

By Esther Paterson 4 August 2011

Last weekend, I went to a 79th birthday party on a little island in Scotland. Most people there were in their 60s, 70s and 80s, and just four of us were in our 20s. We went on a boat, ate, drank, gave speeches and danced a ceilidh. A great way to get old.

Of course, it wasn’t all fun and games. There were aches and pains, forgetful moments, struggling to get on the boat with a cane, and going home to the help of a nurse to get into bed. Nevertheless, there was good cheer in abundance from this group of people making the most of their older years.

The charity WRVS recently published its Gold Age Power List, celebrating people who are making extraordinary achievements and inspirational contributions in the later decades of their lives. People like Queen Elizabeth, who at 85 is the UK’s longest-lived monarch. And the less well known Doris Long, who at 96 is the world’s oldest abseiler and has raised £15,000 for charity.

Yet many people still look on old age with apprehension or even dread. As The Guardian points out, ‘In this golden age of ageing, old people are met with fear and loathing.’

Perhaps this is not surprising, especially given the recent succession of reports that have highlighted the appalling quality of care that many older people receive. For instance, the Care Quality Commission has found elderly patients in some hospitals routinely dehydrated, undernourished and treated without dignity or respect. And there was plenty of publicity when Elaine McDonald, a former ballerina, was denied night care, saving the local council £22,000 a year but leaving Elaine trapped in her bed at night, having to use incontinence pads despite not being incontinent.

As disability rights campaigner Nicky Clark tweets, all too often, ‘it’s not about what people are worth but what they cost’.

Care difficulties can make it seem almost impossible for many people to face old age with dignity and a sense of worth, but some charities are working to help people make the most of older age. The volunteering and training charity CSV runs a programme called RSVP, the retired and senior volunteer programme, which gets older people volunteering in communities across the UK. Some drive disabled patients to hospitals, others help children who are struggling to read. Some befriend people who are isolated or housebound, and others knit teddies for children who’ve suffered trauma.

Volunteering reduces depression, tackles isolation, improves physical health, and gives older people a sense of purpose. It also benefits the people served by the projects.

Charities like RSVP can give older people hope for a happy and fulfilling life. We won’t all be as poised as the Queen or as agile as Doris Long in our 80s and 90s. But we can face old age with dignity and a sense of worth.