According to stats, by 2024 there will be over 18 million people aged 60 and over – 3.1 million more than there was in 2014. Whilst many are keen to live long and fulfilling lives, there’s a limit to how long they want that life to be.
This can be down to many factors. The cost of health and social care doesn’t tend to take into consideration the very elderly. In fact, concerns over the very elderly are barely every voiced – the most publicity it has received recently is the case of 104-year-old David Goodall, the British scientist who flew to Switzerland for voluntary euthanasia in May 2018.
During a press conference before his death, Goodall was frank about his quality of life. “At my age, and even at rather less than my age, one wants to be free to choose the death and when the death is the appropriate time,” he said. “My abilities have been declining over the past year or two, and my eyesight for the past five or six years, and I no longer want to continue life.”
Research suggests chronic pain is “highly prevalent” in the ageing population, and with neurological disorders in people aged 85 and older extremely common, many are unable to successfully communicate this pain – a major barrier to effective treatment. Another study of 85-year-olds in the UK found a median number of five diseases per person; more than half suffered from hearing impairment and/or osteoarthritis, just under half had high blood pressure and just under a quarter had some form of cancer – however the majority said they regarded their health as ‘good’.
This just goes to show how problems from extreme ageing can fly under the radar, says Paul Higgs, Professor of the Sociology of Ageing at UCL, and Chris Gilleard, a research fellow in psychiatry at UCL: “Wider society scarcely acknowledges these problems and most of those on the receiving end, whether carers or people being cared for, are simply too overwhelmed to do much about them.”
Not to mention the fact that living to such an old age can be desperately lonely. According to Age UK, more than 2m people in England over the age of 75 live alone, and more than a million older people say they go over a month without speaking to a friend, neighbour or family member. The NHS warn that being left alone for long periods of time can lead to depression and a serious incline in physical health and wellbeing.
But old age doesn’t have to be so dark – and it isn’t sometimes. Those who do give advice tend to concentrate on living a happy life rather than a long life. Rose, a 103-year-old said keeping busy is important to fulfilment. “Be interested in everything, in what’s going on. Don’t sit back and vegetate,” she told the Guardian.
And despite losing her close friends and husband Colin, Rose, like many other centenarians, manages to stay positive about what the rest of her life has in store for her. “There’s no good being miserable and mourning… making your family say, ‘Mum is terribly unhappy.’ It’s no good,” she said. “Try to think, God is going to take all of us. When he takes me, my Colin will be there and he’ll say: ‘Why have you been so long, love?’”