Who are you calling old?

Who are you calling old

The world is ageing. By 2050 almost 2 billion people across the world will be aged 60 and over. Already, 18% of the UK population is now older than 65, with Italy higher at 24% and Japan higher still at 26%. We are living longer and giving birth less often and, as a result, more than 1 in 5 of the world’s population will be considered old in a generation’s time. So, maybe the question is not “who are you calling old?” but how do we define old age, and more importantly how should we?

Age is just a number

“Who are you calling old?”

Most would say that a person can be called old when they reach pensionable age. That used to be 65 for men and 60 for women. But today it is 66 for men, and 65 for women, and by 2028 both will be set at aged 67. So if the number is always changing then so too must the age at which we say someone is old. And if one day there is no state pension, therefore no pensionable age, then it follows that there will be no old age.

“Who are you calling old…then?

I ain’t getting older, I’m getting better

If defining old age by a number is difficult, can we perhaps describe it more easily?

At the very least, can we all agree what old age looks like?

There is no question that society presents us with a picture of what old age looks like. More often, of course, what we are shown is a stereotype:

Our old person is almost certainly small, grey, bespectacled, wrinkled and bent-forward when standing. Our old person is unable to sleep at night and hardly able to stay awake during the day. Our old person pops many pills, often without knowing why, and sighs & groans with every move. Our old person rails at their half-deafness, protests their near blindness, and shuffles inexorably forward on a one-way trip to partial functionality, zero independence, and disappearing dignity.

Society would have us believe that to be old is to be a non-person.

When you are old you withdraw from life, do less and less, slowly fade away…

So how do we explain the case of Olga Kotelko?

She is the nonagenarian star of track and field, with a collection of winner’s medals and 26 world records to her name ranging from the 100 metres to the javelin, and just about everything else in between.


When will I be old

Her remarkable story is told by journalist Bruce Grierson in his book, What Makes Olga Run? The Mystery of the 90-something track star, and What She Can Teach Us About Living Longer, Happier Lives.”

A wonderful, inspiring book, Grierson is on a mission to discover the reasons why Olga can do as she does and what her life tells us about the limits of being old. And what he finds is that longevity, and our ability to function when old, is the product of many factors although chief among them is exercise.  “The minor miracle here,” he says, “is, you can introduce exercise at any point, right up into very old age, and “completely reverse any decline you’ve had.'”

This is a great book about a remarkable individual. And while Grierson’s exploration reveals that part of Olga’s active longevity can be determined by inherited DNA, of greater importance is how we shape that biological inheritance through the lifestyle choices we make.

Who are you calling old?

There is no stopping getting older, but we should not accept that it dictates physical and mental decline and isolation from society. You do not become a non-person when old.

Of course, making the choices today that will help us live well now cannot guarantee us a long life and good health, but they can make each day fuller and more pleasurable. If we live well now, it may mean our own old age, whenever that arrives, looks a bit more like Olga’s, minus the Gold medals and world records perhaps.

And if that is the case, then I’ll be happy to be called old.

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