When I left high school in 1953 none of us said cheerily, ‘Why don’t we have a reunion in 2003 — 50 years from now!’ There were at least two good reasons. The first was that we were busting to leave school and find out about life. The second was that the life tables would have told us that only half of the boys and 60 per cent of the girls would be alive in 2003.
Well, we did have a reunion in 2003, and of the 39 boys and girls in our fifth year at Armidale High School 34 were still alive, and most came to the reunion. With a couple of exceptions they were in good shape. That was nine years ago, and a couple more have died. I passed the 75 year mark last Saturday, and I was one of the youngest in our class, so — despite the life tables of 1953 — here we all are bowling on towards our centenaries. Today’s life tables shake their heads at such presumption: we are most unlikely to make it.
In response we could say: ‘You said we wouldn’t get to 66, but here we are, many at 76!’ To which the life tables would tell us that everything in life is probabilistic… Just for fun I had a look at the probabilities. At 75, my likely destination will be reached when I am 88. But that is just the median. There is a 48 per cent chance that I would make 89, a 38 per cent chance I would make it to 91, and a 17 per cent chance of reaching 96, and so on. As you’d expect the probabilities get defeatingly small as you approach your centenary.
But there’s no doubt that we’re living longer than our parents’ generation, and even longer than our grandparents’. In my case this is a bit of a bother since although my parents both made 87, and my mother missed 88 by a week, two of their parents made the nineties, and the other two were in their late eighties. Of course our living longer is a major problem in today’s political economy, and our culture takes some time to adjust to our longevity. People aren’t retiring at 65 anymore; in fact, retirement is a rather old-fashioned term. Many are bored with the end of their paid work, with its structure and social setting, and look for other activity to keep them sane. We are a great nation for voluntary activity, which is never counted in GDP, though it has great imputed montary value.
The odd thing is that I didn’t feel any great change on Saturday. I don’t feel old, and many of my friends say the same. There are nonetheless warning signs that I am not as young as I used to be. I can’t put in a full day’s heavy agricultural work in the garden, moving rocks, digging holes, chopping wood; I run out of puff at about 3 pm, if I am lucky. Maybe if I did it every day I would get back into top fitness, but I doubt it. I forget names, especially of people, but also place-names, names of books, and so on. That is most irritating, because I was proud of my memory. If I lament about this to those younger, they will tell me cheerily that they do this all the time, which is poor consolation.
Our health system has been responsible for a lot of our survival. I have left behind a couple of duodenal haemorrhages, a bad melanoma, and dozens of skin deficiencies that have been removed by liquid nitrogen or the knife. We are more fortunate in that respect than earlier generations. And I stopped smoking when I was 26, don’t drink much (can’t because of surgery twenty-five years ago) and keep as fit as I can.
Like others of my age, what terrifies me is dementia. I have seen it in others, and it is so saddening. What can we do about it? Keep fit, keep the mind active, maintain social contacts, all that. And live each day as though there are only a few to go. At this age the events you go to most frequently are funerals, not weddings or engagement parties. And there are far too many of them.
But I look ahead, and see what is happening to old people, and do my best to plan. Oh — old people are those older than me, and that will continue to be the case!