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Let's Hear it for the Third Age!

Western society undergoing an age-explosion.

Western society undergoing an age-explosion. This, Mary Lean discovers, is nothing to get downhearted about.

In the same year as a leading British publishing house accepted its Book of Death, it turned down the offer of a book of poems on ageing - on the grounds that its theme was too depressing.

What is it about old age? Nearly a fifth of the population of the European Community today is aged over 60. In 1987 the number of over-85s living in the EC outstripped the whole population of Ireland. These figures are the result of one of the spectacular achievements of our century - the near-eradication of untimely death in the West. Yet we greet them with fear and despondency.

The problem is that our image of age is outdated, says Malcolm Johnson, Director of the Department of Health and Social Welfare at Britain's Open University. We associate age with illness, dependency, loneliness, powerlessness and purposelessness. Yet most Westerners today can expect to be healthy and independent until a short period before death.

The life-expectancy of a baby boy born in Britain in 1906 was 48. Today it is 72-3. Women at the turn of the century could expect to peg on to 52, today most will make it to 78. The figures are most spectacular for developed nations, but the phenomenon is worldwide. 'Life expectancy in India is growing,' says Johnson. 'In China it is galloping.' Only the very poorest developing nations break the pattern.

Part of the worry, of course, is top-heaviness. How will a dwindling working population support a growing army of the retired and the frail? But even the very old are not as decrepit as their juniors imagine. Only one in a hundred of Britain's over-85s are totally bed-fast, 88 per cent can still climb stairs alone. Although two-thirds of British men over 65 and nearly four-fifths of older women fall into the country's lowest income group, over 50 per cent of them own their homes.

The anxiety goes deeper than economics. In the old today we meet ourselves tomorrow. Two impulses lie at the root of negative attitudes towards the old, says a recent Church of England report -'a fear of dying and of death, and an ideology which falsely equates success with productivity'.

To encourage a more positive approach, Johnson and his fellow 'gerontologists' promote the concept of the 'Third Age'. According to them, the years after retirement should be seen not as a postscript to life but as its crown - an era of personal fulfilment after the grind of job and bringing up a family.

This Third Age of freedom and maturity, poised between the responsibilities of the Second Age and the (usually-brief) pre-Death dependency of the Fourth Age, may last as many as 30 years. Its boundaries are not set by birthdays, but by circumstances and states of mind.

So much for the theorists, but what about the practitioners? The people I talked to are not a representative group. They would see themselves as relatively privileged in economic terms and, perhaps, in spiritual terms. But neither cash nor religion protects people from the central emotional challenge of old age. The sages stress the virtue of 'being' rather than 'doing', but most of us fill any empty spaces in our lives with activity. How will we cope when the 'doing' has to stop?

A central thesis of the Third Age is that retirement in itself is no reason to subside. My neighbour, aged 91, still works in her garden; an artist friend in his eighties is busier today than at any time in his career; I've had two of my best holidays sailing with a septuagenarian. The world is full of terrifyingly active over-75s.

The British author, politician and activist on penal issues, Lord Longford, laments the fact that at the age of 86 he has had to give up tennis because he can no longer focus on the ball. When I met him, he had just visited seven prisons in two weeks. Longford is a Third-Age employer: his personal assistant, Gwen Keeble, is even older than he.

'You've got to be lucky to enjoy your old age,' Longford says. He has his wife, his family, his health - in spite of an incipient cataract - and his membership of the House of Lords, an institution where Third Agers hold the upper hand. The Lords, he says, is 'a splendid place - we're all deteriorating at the same time'.

He doesn't believe in speculating on how he would cope if things were different - nor in devoting too much time to the traditional Fourth-Age pursuit of preparing to meet his maker. 'I can't personally feel that that's what God wants me to do. Someone said that God despises the peace of those he has destined for combat. I think the itch that sends me round prisons is one way of doing what God intends.'

For Geoffrey Fisher, Archbishop of Canterbury 1945-61, retirement brought a first chance to be a vicar - in the small Dorset village of Trent. His failing memory didn't deter him. He had no compunction about pausing halfway through a sermon to ask his startled congregation where he had got to; and greeted all his parishioners, whether he remembered them or not, with the words, 'now tell me your name'. ('If I didn't say it to everyone,' he explained, 'the people I did forget would be very hurt.')

I have these anecdotes on the best possible authority, my former headmistress. Dame Diana Reader Harris is no mean Third Ager herself. After retiring at the age of 63, she took on a bewildering array of offices in Church, educational and charitable organizations, including Chairmanship of Christian Aid. Now 79, she is losing her sight and fighting her way off as many committees as possible - 'I can't read the minutes'.

In spite of this, her account of her schedule for the week leaves me exhausted. Her problem, she says, is not boredom, but the opposite. The battle is to cling onto the Biblical injunction to 'be still and know that I am God' -the Hebrew, she says, suggests the idea of 'pause awhile and relax'. She lives with her sister-in-law and does all the cooking herself - at some risk to their guests, as 'I never know what I'm putting in'. Now that she goes up to London less she has time to visit her friends, and sees this as a major compensation for her blindness.

For those in less demand than Lord Longford and Dame Diana, developing old and new interests seems to be a key. 'Retirement is no problem,' says former company chairman Ian Appleyard, who for years has spent his spare time observing the habits of that elusive bird, the ring ouzel. 'All you have to do is extend your weekends to meet on Wednesdays.' Many use their Third Age freedom to travel; others to study, some through the recently founded Universities of the Third Age, whose members are required to teach as well as learn.

For many older women today, the Third Age began when their children left home. 'I lost all my confidence,' says mother-of-five Agnes Craig. 'I felt tired and old.' She met the crisis by taking a part-time job in an antique shop; then, when she was 66, a course in china restoration; and more recently a lingua phone course in French. 'It's important to keep your brain active. There's a vast amount you can learn just sitting.'

These people typify the image of age that Johnson and his colleagues want us to take on board - active, interested, by-and-large healthy people, living fulfilled lives. But as Johnson admits, it isn't the complete picture. 'Now we've got hang-gliding grannies we need to temper the picture with realism,' he says.

My 80-year-old mother, concerned that her contemporaries may be giving me too rosy a view, is quick to point out the down side. Arthritis has shortened her perimeters - she chooses her route around her home on the basis of the number of footsteps involved. As horizons draw in, she says, minor ailments bulk large, small hurdles seem like mountain ranges. Friends and relations thin out.

My father, a mere 78-year-old, takes up the theme. A lifelong improver of the shining hour, he admits to 'an inability to be at ease when at rest'. 'If we watch a video after tea, I feel guilty that I'm not doing something significant,' he says. 'Basically it's due to the fact that one's security has been in what one has done, not what one is. It's a basic misconception of God -earning, rather than learning to love God and feel at home with him.'

Lord Hailsham, who as Lord Chancellor was head of Britain's judiciary from 1970-4 and 1979-87, is another member of the 'tell-it-as-it-is' brigade. 'One has an obsession of uselessness,' he says, in spite of the fact that like Longford, he attends the House of Lords regularly. He admits his blessings - his wife and family, his faculties - and describes his physical afflictions, which necessitate the use of two sticks, as 'minor'. But he doesn't believe old age is meant to be enjoyed.

Unlike Longford, at 84 he believes that those 'spared' to old age, 'have an obligation' to prepare for the next world. 'I spend my time in self-reproach,' he says. 'I don't think it's altogether unhealthy - it's a time for recollection and gathering one's thoughts together and examining one's conscience. There are fewer and fewer people to whom one can make recompense, the account is closed.'

What about forgiveness? 'I don't think that I've experienced forgiveness, but I trust that I shall be forgiven. I think one should stand in fear of judgment, I can't understand people who just swagger into the next life. I shall plead guilty and throw myself on the mercy of the court.'

The incidence of depression among older people is higher than for the rest of the British population as a whole. In his autobiography George Appleton, a gardener's son who became Archbishop of Jerusalem, writes about his own struggles with depression, an attitude he had noted 'but felt rather critical about' in his elders previously. He writes of the 'strange comfort' of knowing that others suffer in the same way and the need to see the darkness as 'God's opportunity to come to the rescue'.

Age strikes at different ages. In a collection of wise words from the old and famous published by Age Concern, the actress Phyllis Calvert maintains, 'I have a sister who is 80 who says she is as old as she feels - which is 20. I am 75 and I feel 100.'

For Maisie Poulton age came in her late 50s, when a neck problem forced her to take six months' complete rest. 'I was told never to overdo it again,' she says. 'It was a question of accepting my own frailty, partly physical and partly emotional. I'd wake up in the night and wonder if I'd ever be able to do anything again. I could understand a friend who'd committed suicide.'

She found she had to learn to express her care for people by listening to them, rather than 'doing things' for them. She had to let go her desire to be seen as somebody who could cope with whatever came her way. 'You have to go on learning how to budget your resources - and to be objective about your limitations. If you're subjective and competitive about them, it's misery.'

Age first impinged on Catherine Weeks at 72, when cancer was diagnosed and she was told she had a few months to live. 'Your perspective is suddenly foreshortened,' she says. 'You realize that most of your life is behind you rather than ahead of you.' Strangely she seems to have found this less disturbing than the discovery that, seven years later, she is still alive.

It's not that she finds life tedious - in fact, as her husband's work often took him away, in her widowhood she enjoys sharing her home with her daughter and says this is one of the least lonely periods she has known. She is busy reading, thinking, playing the piano and singing, entertaining and counselling friends. 'It may just be this feeling of uncertainty about the future. I knew I was going to die of cancer, now I don't know how I'll die. I really have quite a fear of getting too old and blind. If I was ill again, I'd be quite happy for that to be the end. Except I think of my dear family - still, one comes to terms with these things!'

Agnes Craig has had to confront one of the greatest spectres of age since her husband, a former British Steel executive, had a stroke three years ago. Slowly she helped him back to the point where he could use a word-processor, go on the bus by himself, go swimming. Then, a year ago, he had a second, bigger, stroke. 'I think he lost heart then.'

After eight months of home nursing, Mrs Craig agreed to send her husband to a nursing home for a week. Then the matron and deputy matron told her that he should never go home. 'They said I'd collapse too. I came home that night and sobbed my heart out.' It was the degree of his mental deterioration which convinced her, she says: 'I could have coped with his total care physically.'

She's full of praises for the nursing home. 'No, he's not happy there - but he wasn't happy here. I go every second day and take him out in his wheelchair and tell him everything. If I ask, "do you remember?", he'll nod. Occasionally a word comes out. I hold his hand a lot.

She has had to accept that he is no longer the person he was, while still treating him as an adult. She baulks a little at the way the staff call him by his first name, and has seen his fury on the rare occasions when they talk down to him. She has seen, too, his response when he is treated with respect. 'A minister came and gave him Communion. When he left he said, "Mr Craig, it's been a privilege to see you." John sobbed.'

She admits she is 'fazed' by the questions her husband's condition raises. 'I don't think we'll ever be able to explain things like that. It's so unfair when someone young dies. And my dear old husband, who'd be much happier away...'

Is there anything in her earlier life which helps her to cope now? She describes a crisis point 30 years ago, when she set aside something she desperately wanted for the sake of her family. She learnt then, she says, that God could give her the power to do what she felt was impossible.

'I don't think God's ever meant so much to me as in the last three years,' she says. 'I can talk to him and say I'm angry, I'm fed up. I can go through and out the other side. Bitterness and self-pity are so often humanly justifiable. But if you submit to them, nothing changes except yourself for the worse.'

In old age you are the product of your earlier life,' says Malcolm Johnson. This is true on the physical side - 'if you want to enjoy your Third Age, the first thing is to give up smoking' - but also when it comes to attitudes. 'People who are optimistic and good-humoured and problem-solvers will continue to be most of these things. But if you weren't good at relationships early in life, it won't get better unless you work at it. People don't blossom simply because they're old.'

Harry Addison, who lives in a Methodist community for the elderly in Liverpool, agrees, 'I don't find myself naturally becoming wiser, sweeter, mellower, more saintly.' But he believes it is possible to go on growing. Age gives the time, he says, 'to learn things about God and ourselves which we were too busy to learn when we were in our prime. It would be a pity if we lapsed into our second childhood before we have fully emerged from our first.'

The cause of the elderly in Britain is still mainly championed by organizations like Age Concern, staffed mostly by Second Agers. In the States, the old are a formidable lobby in their own right. The consumerist American Association of Retired Persons has 25 million members; the more militant Grey Panthers some 2 million.

Johnson believes a sea-change is on its way in Britain, as the post-war 'baby-boomers' age inexorably towards their pensions. The generation that appropriated the Sixties for teenagers and the Eighties for thirty-somethings will see that the over-sixties have their way in the 2000s. It'll be a bit late for today's Third Agers - but even they have a lot more opportunities than their parents.

Meanwhile, says Johnson, if you're going to make your old age positive, it's no good waiting until you've got your clock in your hand. I'm taking him seriously.

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