There are more centenarians then ever, according to new estimates. But those who turn 100 must first make it into their 90s - a landmark age that was all but unimaginable when they were born.
By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine
Ninety is the new 80, it seems, and the increasing number of people reaching that milestone has contributed to a record number of 100-year-olds.
There were an estimated 9,000 centenarians in England and Wales last year, an increase of 7.5% on the previous year.
The major factors, says an Office of National Statistics report, are increased survival rates between 80 and 100 due to improvements in hygiene and sanitation, improved food, housing and living standards and medical treatment.
Reaching 90 in the post-war period was a rare event but now many lead fit and active lives. Here some of them talk about life at 90.
"Good old days? What good old days?" says Rose Butt, 93, after outlining a childhood that included a four-mile walk to school, the cane, bed at 6.30pm every night and a father held in a German POW camp.
The prospect of being "skivvy" to a farmer's wife in rural Essex propelled a 14-year-old Rose to London and a job in domestic help, followed by a 60-year marriage to Reg that she describes as unhappy. Despite such a hard life, Rose remains, chirpy, mischievous and twinkly-eyed. Cheerfulness, it seems, has been a key ingredient in her recipe for longevity.
"I'm inclined to be a happy-go-lucky person," she says. "I've always looked after myself except for smoking, which I regret. People always say 'you're always smiling', but I have my moments when I get depressed and have a cry."
Her friends don't phone any more because they've all died, she says. And angina, arthritis, inflamed legs and an irregular heartbeat mean she has to take nine tablets every morning.
But she still gets out on her mobility scooter - despite an accident last year that broke her arm in two places, she was straight back without a trace of nerves - and her fondness for Formula One motor racing makes her one of the oldest petrolheads around.
And she knits for charity. A pile of cuddly toys in the corner of her living room are testament to her skill in this regard including, amazingly, a doll wearing knitted roller skates.
When his wife Ivy died of Parkinson's disease in 1999, the Reverend Edgar Dowse decided to return to his studies. But what does a man with six degrees do next?
The answer for Mr Dowse was a PhD, called The Soul in Relation to God, which took four years to complete.
Three years short of receiving a telegram from the Queen, he credits his faith and a loving wife for his ripe old age. Before they were married, Ivy found a mystery benefactor to finance Mr Dowse, who then worked at Lloyds Bank, to go to theological college.
"Ivy was ingenious and discovered someone to put up the money for me and she would never let on who it was. How she did it I still don't know.
"She was a tremendous help. She had the position of a vicar's wife but she had a level of genius and would always tell me what to do and I always followed her advice because she was always right."
Although he can no longer walk properly Mr Dowse, who saw a Zeppelin shot down in World War I, still preaches every Sunday at various churches and he has a love for ancient languages. He reads his Bible in Hebrew, Aramaic and Syriac, which he has taught himself, and he can also read ancient Greek and Latin.
His faith was kindled as a boy at Bible class in Sheen, west London, and has given him a sense of purpose that has sustained him for nine decades.
Any 90th birthday would be a huge milestone but for Winifred Timbrell it drew her ever-closer to a personal competition she had to outlive her mother.
"I was pleased because my mother lived to be 92 so I thought I only had another two years to go."
Two years after the party at Guild House in Gloucester she's drawn level with her mother, and she puts this achievement down to an active life.
"I always liked to exercise when I was young - walk, swim and cycle - and now I try to keep going as much as I can.
"I exercise to music once a week and I don't sit down to be waited on, I still do a few jobs. I knit a lot for a charity and I still read the papers."
She counts herself lucky to have lived so long but does not want to live to 100.
"I'm quite happy now, but if I was poorly I would think it better to pass away. When you can't get about much and can't do the things you always did, it's not so good. I miss going into town and looking around the shops and buying something and maybe have a coffee."
Her father died in World War I and she just remembers sitting on her mother's knee, aged three, seeing her weeping while clutching a telegram.
And a tale from her first wedding day, in 1944, challenges the notion that manners were better in yesteryear.
Setting off on her Blackpool honeymoon after the service, she stood on the train all the way to Birmingham, because it was full of soldiers.
It's only two weeks since Duncan Clark, 92, reluctantly gave up his mobility scooter, but what others would view as a serious restriction on their freedom is for him a minor irritation - he'll just have to get the bus.
"I don't know why I've lived so long, maybe it's just that I've done everything in moderation - drinking, walking, cycling, and a lot of my life has been outdoors."
A draughtsman by trade, Duncan spends his time doing jigsaws, raising money for a children's charity, reading and walking.
His 90s were greeted with some enthusiasm, he recalls. "I didn't find it so bad, I think it's something to be proud of. When I was young, if you were 90 you were on the scrapheap but now they consider it more. So in some ways old people are treated better now but not in others."
His motto for life is stick with your friends, don't show off and keep a sense of dignity.
He spent 63 years with Lillian, whom he married in Liverpool in 1942 and who died in 2005. But he never called her Lily.
"She wouldn't have it. I would've been shot at dawn. Actually, she wouldn't wait till dawn, she'd shoot me at sunset."
Luck is what has taken Violet Parish to 90, she believes. "I've just been normal and worked hard, but I've been lucky.
"I'm always Mrs Groaner or Mrs Moaner but there are people terribly ill. You're very lucky if you haven't got anything worse than arthritis."
On her 90th birthday last November Violet had a party at the Bupa Ashley Park Nursing Home in Guildford, but she was not feeling well.
"Don't get old, it's not all it's cracked up to be. When you're young you think it will be wonderful to be sitting down and being waited on but it's not, it's boring.
"I want to be up and helping the nurses when they're a bit short, but I can't."
To ease the boredom, Violet does crosswords and su doku or watches television.
"I like Vicar of Dibley and I've got into the soaps, which is nuisance because they're a load of rubbish. People used to ask me why I watched EastEnders and I said because it was true to life but now I'm not sure it is."
Sadly, her husband George fell ill and lost consciousness just before their diamond wedding anniversary in 2000. He died soon afterwards.
But Violet says her proudest achievement is her family - two sons, two daughters-in-law and two granddaughters.
Below is a selection of your comments.
My father-in-law died recently aged 93 & he led as full as life as anyone could wish for. He worked for 72 years with the police force & a local solicitors. He kept his mind active & enjoyed his family. I am always reminded of the quote from George Burns - "People ask me what I'd most appreciate getting for my eighty-seventh birthday. I tell them, a paternity suit". Attitude of mind has a lot to do with a long & satisfying life. Put me down for 100 years!
Mike Webster, Pulborough
My mum died two years ago aged 92, up until age 90 she was still quite active, going out shopping etc. She had a hard life too, bringing up 9 children with a work-shy husband. She smoked until she was 75, then gave it up complaining they were too expensive!
Mike, Wickford, Essex.
My mother turned 70 this year and has finally met and moved in with the man of her dreams! She's as vibrant and beautiful to me now as she was when I was a small girl - I can think of no better role model for a woman to have! No matter how bad things have been in her life, she's living proof you're never too old to find happiness. Long may she enjoy it!
I have and aunt who is 96 this year and until a year ago went and picked up her pension and done a lot of her shopping on her own, unfortunately she has been very ill this last year and has gone the other way, she is still in hospital now and the family are hoping to celebrate her birthday with her in December. We are now having to put her in a home because she can no longer look after herself and she hates it. She told a family member that she wishes she was dead. I really think that it's good some ways for people to reach 90 and over but as long as they have good health.
Jacqueline Gow, Surrey
My partner's grandmother celebrated her 100th a few years back. She had a hard life as a farmer's wife in France. She put her longevity down to living off the land, a slow pace of country life and her 16 children. At her 100th party all her 16 children, 56 grand children and 34 great-great-grand children were present. It made national news in France. What a party! So relax, chill out and eat some home produce.
Tim Johnson talks about old people's homes. It's not always necessarily a matter of choice. We are just arranging for an 87-year-old family member to go into a home. Her 86-year-old husband has been looking after her at home with support from relatives and neighbours, but she now has advanced Alzheimer's, as well as a long list of other complaints, and none of us can care for her. We are taking her geriatrician's advice [she is constantly in and out of hospital] and trying to make her as comfy as possible, although she really has no idea what is going on around her. It is not that no one wants her - those of us left are also elderly and not in good health, and could not manage the lifting, cleaning, feeding - dealing with the constant falls. Her husband is devastated. So it's not always the easy option.
This just shows what the secret of a long life is: there isn't one. These people are all just normal folk who've lead normal lives and eaten and drunk normal foods. Good luck to them!
My mother is 89 and fighting fit. She has a strict diet. She only eats food that is half price.
Dave Smith, Peterborough
How delightful. I love to listen to the stories of the older generations. Just think what these people have seen in their lifetime. It is unfortunate that in our society, old people have become an inconvenience. I imagine it an easy get-out clause to put your parents in an old peoples home - but is that truly the way to let those that raised you spend the rest of their lives?
Tim Johnson, Wisnford
Sounds good, getting 90 but for me 80 would be enough; maybe doing some skiing and getting caught in an avalanche at the age of 80 ? Why not, life could end worse.
Klaus Eickhoff, Bochum, Northrine Westfalia, Germany
Good Show; one must admire all these lovely and young at heart people. My Wife is from So Wales; we were married in Dunmow, Essex, in l955.
Roman Barnack, Tampa Area, FL; USA
RELATED BBC LINKS
RELATED INTERNET LINKS
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites