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Last Updated: Friday, 4 August 2006, 16:15 GMT 17:15 UK
In our age of old age
David Cannadine
By David Cannadine

Old age is the most enduring of the three phases of our existence. But it is also the one where our experience of life is at its most varied - and our views of life and our determination to cling to it are at their most contradictory.

The Queen has spent much of the first part of this year celebrating her birthday - not surprisingly, since unlike most of us, she has two of them: her real birthday, on the twenty first of April, and her official birthday, which takes place in June, and is marked by the Trooping the Colour.

But she's also been celebrating for the more particular reason that she's reached the venerable age of 80.

The Queen at her 80th birthday party
Two birthdays - but acting a lot younger
During her speech at the Lord Mayor's banquet, following a thanksgiving service at St Paul's Cathedral, she approvingly quoted Groucho Marx. "Anyone can get old. All you have to do is live long enough."

Following the example of her own mother (who lived to be 101), rather than that of her father (who died at 56), there's no reason to doubt the Queen's determination to keep going.

She seems as much at ease with herself now as at any phase in her life.

She has taken over the slot of presiding matriarch of the Windsor dynasty, vacated by the Queen Mother.

And as someone who is both wealthy and healthy and supported by a loyal staff and a large family, she is better placed to enjoy a good and long old age than those of her contemporaries who are infirm, impoverished or lonely.

So it's not perhaps surprising that the Queen refrained from quoting Groucho Marx's preceding sentence.

"Age," he said, "is not a particularly interesting subject."

Fascination with the inevitable

It probably doesn't interest her all that much, but it certainly interests many of the rest of us, whether we're already old or have yet to become so.

In recent days, the newspapers have been running stories of the very different sort of old age now being endured by Brooke Astor.

At one hundred and four, she's a whole generation older than our sovereign. But until very recently she was almost as much the Queen of New York as Elizabeth II is Queen of the United Kingdom.

She gave away millions of Dollars to good causes and no fund-raising dinner or high society event was complete unless she was there, looking timelessly elegant, dripping in jewels and enfolded in furs, and making speeches that unfailingly brought the house down.

But now she is reported to be living in conditions of degrading squalor in her Manhattan apartment and a legal battle is about to be fought out between her descendants over whether she's being properly cared for.

Different experiences

As these two very different examples suggest, old age is often the most enduring, and certainly the most varied, of the three phases of human existence.

Former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan
Macmillan: Enjoyed life as an elder statesman
Youth and middle age are quite precisely defined periods of our growth and development.

But old age can begin for some people in their late fifties, for others in their late eighties, and while for some it can be worthwhile and fulfilling, for others it can be a hideous, haunting nightmare.

According to Alistair Horne, his official biographer, Harold Macmillan rather enjoyed being an old man. He was an elder statesman for as long as he was a younger and a middle-aged statesman, delivering memorable speeches, by turns witty and tear-jerking, as Chancellor of Oxford University and also, at the age of 90, in the House of Lords.

But Ronald Reagan's last years were very different. What he called his "journey into the sunset" was darkened by the ravages of Alzheimer's disease and by the terrible suffering that this inflicted on his family, especially his wife Nancy.

Movers and shakers

It's a truism to say that old people have existed for as long as humankind has existed.

Ronald Reagan being fed by his wife Nancy, towards the end of his life
'Journey into Sunset': Reagan ravaged by Alzheimers
The Bible may have exaggerated in claiming that the natural span of life was three score years and ten, but for those who survived childhood, the chances of reaching old age had always been quite good.

Not surprisingly, then, God has often been depicted as a venerable, bearded and wise old man and many Old Testament prophets were often senior citizens, among them Moses, who allegedly lived to be 120.

More than 2,000 years ago, [the Roman man-of-letters] Cicero offered some of the most profound comments on the elderly condition that have ever been made.

"Old age," he noted, "will only be respected if it fights for itself, maintains its rights, avoids dependence on anyone, and asserts control over its own to its last breath."

Many of the movers and shakers of the ancient, medieval and early modern worlds lived to advanced ages, from Homer, King Nestor and Pythagoras to Michelangelo, Louis XIV and JS Bach. And who has not been moved by the matchless series of self-portraits that Rembrandt completed in his last years?

As with so many phases and aspects of life, the best time to be old is in fact now, rather than in some imagined golden age of the past that almost certainly never existed for most people
In pre-modern Europe, somewhere between five and ten per cent of the population was over 70 - but the elderly have only become the object of government concern, and of medical and scholarly investigation, during the last hundred years or so.

Before then, old people were generally looked after by their relatives, the church or charity or not at all.

The idea that there should be a mandatory retiring age and that the state had an obligation to provide pensions for all those who could no longer work is of a very recent provenance.

Bismarck's Germany was the pioneer, in the 1880s, with Australia and New Zealand following soon after.

In Britain, Lloyd George introduced basic state pensions in 1908, but the United States had to wait until 1935, when President Roosevelt inaugurated social security.

The medical study of ageing is also a relatively recent phenomenon. It was not until 1909 that the term geriatric was coined by an Austrian-American physician named Dr Ignatz Nascher.

And it's only during the last thirty years or so that historians have begun to study old age, so it's hardly surprising there are still many misconceptions about how it was and how it is.

Golden age

Perhaps the most pervasive is the nostalgic belief that earlier societies handled old age better than we do, because advancing years always brought honour and esteem, and because elderly lives invariably ended happy, serene and secure, surrounded by loved ones.

Burkina Faso
Source: World Health Organisation
This was, indeed, sometimes the case. Renaissance Popes and Venetian Doges often wielded power in their 70s and 80s, and as Shakespeare makes one of his characters say: "My age is as a lusty winter, frosty but kindly."

Yet then as now, the experience of old age varied considerably, and Shakespeare is an instructive guide to its downside as well as its upside.

King Lear is a searing study of a once-powerful leader, grudgingly yielding his authority to his unkind and ungrateful children.

And who can forget Shakespeare's description of the seventh age of man in As You Like It:

Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion;
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

As with so many phases and aspects of life, the best time to be old is in fact now, rather than in some imagined golden age of the past that almost certainly never existed for most people.

Medical advances and improvements in nutrition mean that instead of being roughly 10% of the population, senior citizens are now nearer 20%. So far as is known, this is something without precedent in human history.

Life expectancy may have declined in Russia since the end of Communism, but across most of western Europe and north America, the balance of the population is tilting away from youth and towards age, as the post-war generation of baby boomers reach their 60s and their 70s.

No wonder old age is being studied more than ever before. Hence the calls to raise the age of retirement, the concerns about pension funds, and the growth in "third age" leisure activities.

And hence the comforting belief that death is now the exception for the young and the middle aged, and that the "right" time to die is when you're old.

But while this may be true - and increasingly true - in the west, it's certainly not how things are elsewhere.

Across much of the third world, old age is still the exception rather than the rule as famine, starvation, civil war, disease and especially Aids carry off the young and the middle aged in their millions.

"Longevity," Martin Luther King observed in his last great speech advocating civil rights for all Americans, "has its place".

But not for people who live in other parts of the world. And not, alas, for King himself.

The day after he spoke those words, he was gunned down by an assassin's bullet in Memphis, Tennessee, on 4 April 1968.

He was only 39-years-old. But his widow, Coretta Scott King, lived nearly four more decades, dying in January 2006 at what seems to us the much more "natural" age of 78.

Most of us want to live a long time, but - to stand Groucho Marx on his head - few of us, if we are honest with ourselves, actually want to get old.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

I believe that you are only as old as you feel. If a person takes good care of themselves has strong family bonds; and lives a faith based life, he or she is much more likely to live well into old age and survive disease than those who have neglected their body and spirit.
F.R.S., U.S.

I take comfort from Churchill's words 'Old age is nothing but a bad habit
A busy person does not have time for it'
Wendy Martin, Evercreech, Shepton Mallet,, England

Old age is a difficult stage to define; some people at the age of 50 seem older than others at the age of 70. The nearest thing we have to defining it is the pensionable age, but putting an actual age on who we perceive as being old is more complicated. A number of factors come into play, notably physical condition and health, age in years, and outlook on life.
Karl Chads, London, UK

Old age is a difficult stage to define; some people at the age of 50 seem older than others at the age of 70. The nearest thing we have to defining it is the pensionable age, but putting an actual age on who we perceive as being old is more complicated. A number of factors come into play, notably physical condition and health, age in years, and outlook on life. It is interesting to see how science, changing lifestyles, and medicine affect the ageing process and our perception of old age.
Karl Chads, London, UK

I am now sixty one years of age and for the first time in my life I can say I am genuinely enjoying a physical relationship without all the angst of my earlier years!
Ita Fox, London

With old age comes wisdom and some degree of acceptance. For me (now 68) it has also brought hope and vigour. My mother died at 66, from cancer, and spent the last twenty years of her life addicted to anti depressants. E.c.t. also changed her personality in her family's eyes. I have challenged and got my depression under control and now have a happy, calmer time than ever before. I also received a good education, have a much better income and have good physical health. In the early 1940s however, I spent my first three years in the Blitz, was evacuated away from my mother where I suffered sexual abuse at the age of four, didn't see my father between the ages of 4 and 10 because he was serving in the Far East. I then had two years in care because my mother had TB. This all led to denial for 40 years and then a breakdown. I was helped by clinical psychologists back to health. My old age is like a peaceful harbour where I can enjoy the independence that money and health bring. I am so very grateful for the blessings of the 20th despite the early traumas of my life. My mother didn't get my second chances.
Maureen Hitchens, London

"The Bible may have exaggerated in claiming that the natural span of life was three score years and ten," Isn't 3 score + 10 years 70 years? If a score is 20 years, the 3 score is 60 years. So a lifespan of 70 would be about right, even today. Even back in biblical times that would be about right, for someone living in civilization who survived both childhood and any wars/famines that occurred in adulthood.
Scot Roberts, New Barnet

I was very interested to read this article as being an 'oldie' ie 74 and believing that life is still for living and that new technology can help and enhance our lives and realising that there was very little informative, entertaining and thought provoking for our age group out there a colleague (aged 78) and I have launched a web magazine specifically to be good company for those 'retired but not retiring' Why not take a look..
Avril Lethbridge , Oxford

I am a physician and cardiologist and was also actively involved in Geriatrics for a few years in NHS UK. Now I am 75+. But for the viral transverse nmyelitis in 1958 which disabled me a little bit, I continued to work most of the time, I miss working when stopped at 70. I have read and seen many articles on people leaving to ripe old age. Only thing I can see is being happy go lucky, interested in some activity or the other and more important keeping the weight under control and keep walking. C.R.Rao
Dr.C.R.Rao, Winthrop WA6150, Australia

I relish the prospect of being older and wiser, though I also value the words of George Sand: so let us remain altogether young and trembling right into old age, and let us try to fancy we are merely starting out in life right up to the very eve of death...
Jan M-K, Wales, UK

An excellent article especially the quotes. My mother lived to 97, my brother 84,father 74 and I expect to be 85 next month. We were a Bedford family. I was the wanderer of the family as I have spent 54 years of my life in foreign parts. I am now a pensioner in the Republic of Panama and enjoy using the net which keeps me in touch with all things British as well as old friends.
Peter, Panama

I am 72, retired for 7 years, and I work from dawn 'till dusk on my 5 acre garden. I drink 3 to 4 pints of strong ale every day, eat anything my wife makes, meat, fish, veggies, fruit, bread and butter, ice cream, and also drink lots of water. Don't smoke but love eating dark chocolate. I am 6'tall, weight 186 lbs (13.2 stone). I really enjoy my life and living . For me there is no alternative except oblivion.
Galactic Cannibal, Murrieta, Southern California

I've heard you are only as old as the women you feel.
Spedge, Edinburgh

The term "old age" will become redundant in time, if science is able to slow the ageing process. If it can enables us to live the next year of our lives more or less as we lived the year just passed, and the year after that again, we may even not consider ourselves to be old at the age of 70. I wonder if there will come a day when we typically live to be 200, and therefore don't need to retire - perhaps we can just go on sabbatical for a year or two and then head back to the office for another decade!
Dan S, Cambridge

I would just like to point out to FRS (US) that having a faith is no guarantee that you won't neglect your spirit no more than not having a faith is a guarantee you will. This is a conceit peculiar to people who 'have a faith'. Bertrand Russell - who lived to be 90-something and certainly had spirit - and plenty of it - once defined faith as 'the firm belief in something for which there is absolutely no evidence'. This being the case doesn't 'having a faith' imply a certain lack of open-mindedness which, surely, can only be bad for the spirit?
John, Wolverhampton

Although their parents lived longer, my father died at 39, and my mother at 50, so at 63 I'm enjoying living every moment and working as much as I can despite having severe back problems. Living in the 3rd world with its limited health services is a risk, but the birdsong, sunshine and palms, give a quality of life that is simply not found elsewhere.
Jamie, Ex-pat Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

I am 70 years old. I am in good health, eat right and exercise. My only problem is loneliness. I live near my children, have many friends. My family I see and speak to constantly. I have many widow friends and they feel the same. I have joined many clubs, volunteer but I still come home to an empty house. I know many widows who never see or hear from their families. I am very grateful for all the love around me. I go to church and bible study which helps me a lot. Losing my spouse was the hardest part of aging.
Brenda Fraser, NC USA

A comment to FRS - I am an atheist and according to you, I will likely not live to old age. Faith has nothing to do with it. In fact, because I believe that all we have is our time on earth, everyday is precious to me, and therefore I am determined to live healthily for as long as possible.
Ruth Semple, Birmingham

Born in Scotland I claim to have that as an advantage of being what I am today. Seventy eight years old and recovering well from a horrendous car crash two months ago when I was taken from my car which was demolished. They thought I was dead, but I survived with five fractures to the pelvis. Today I am walking and back to enjoying life as I knew it two months ago. As I approach eighty I now know age is just a number. I worked with people who were 'old' in their 50's.
Elizabeth R Savage, Newmarket, Ontario Canada

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