Monday, October 24, 2011

If You Squint Hard There Are Still No Jokes Here

Before I start, I know this is a contentious issue and I'm well aware that come the morning I'll have an inbox full of angry messages telling me to "stick the jokes" and asking me if I know what it feels like to lose someone when you're very young. It's inevitable people will be angry with the following opinions and I have no doubt that, having been cast a different lot in life, I'd be one of those very people. The truth is that close proximity to an issue makes you an awful judge of the situation... and it's the very reason I shouldn't be writing this blog when I'm a little riled up. However it's equally true that close proximity to a situation breeds passion for it, and without passion we would get barely anything done that didn't line our pockets generously.

I just sat at a train station with an old man next to me. He had smart shoes on - brown and polished - and navy trousers that looked fairly reputable and expensive. He was wearing a North Face jacket and had an averagely well kept beard. He had open cuts on his face, some starting to scab but others still fleshy pink where scarring was sure to occur. He was sitting on the bench beside me. He got up, walked over to the toilet doors and pushed gently against them. Finding them locked he turned around and gently wet himself. It was audible from where I sat on the bench. You could hear it pattering against his leather shoes, the dark stain creeping out around his groin. When I looked towards the noise, he turned away towards the toilet door.

When the train arrived it was one where minding the gap was a necessity rather than a tourist attraction. The old man leaned at a precarious angle and clutched the open doors whilst trying to get the momentum up to swing his leg on to the train. I asked if he would like some help.

The hurt in his eyes as I asked was excruciating. He politely declined and winced as he moved his limbs into the carriage. He stood proudly the entire journey.

I sat in my seat watching him. Praying that this would never be my father or brother. Wondering when it is that we stop seeing people as men and women, but as old people. Why does no one ever really believe that they will be like this one day? What do you have to do in a life to be this alone when you most need a hand at your elbow?

I can't help but feel the human race has been a little like the irresponsible parents at Christmas when it comes to life extension. Buying the puppy before we've quite considered how much maintenance it will require. The average life expectancy 100 years ago was 54 for women and 50 for men... this year it will 82 for women and 74 for men. Whilst this is INCREDIBLE... it feels a little weird. Like no one has realised that this extra 30 years isn't going to magically appear in between 20 and 21... it's going to be a 30 years at the end where we have different requirements and need a whole load of looking after. Living an extra 30 years is insanely brilliant... most people will have an extra 30 years with their Grandparents to learn lessons, with their parents to fall back on. Utterly amazing. But at the same time truly terrifying. We're all so scared of death and of grief that we've postponed the problem for as long as possible, like the ultimate DFS sofa payment deal, but without considering that death will come anyway and that the life we substituted it for over such a long period may not have been a better deal anyway.

It's got to be money that's the problem. It always is - money is the biggest fucking problem on this planet and it's a completely made up concept anyway, which makes perfect sense given our shambolic hijack of this planet. If we're too expensive to be comfortably old then maybe we need to weigh up whether we're prepared to care, potentially full time, for our elders for the first half of our lives, or whether we're prepared to meet with tragedy a little earlier. It's our call but we can't have it both ways.

I don't want anyone to die before we have to let them. But if we're going to keep ourselves alive, can we at least make sure it's a life? Not just a slow slide into complete degradation without the physical means to maintain a sense of identity. If we're too selfish to live with death then give us the social responsibility to understand that we're all the premature elderly and that it isn't a condition we'll be able to side step. No matter what. Whatever money, whatever race, whatever job role you used to have. One day you'll be watching people disregard your worthy experience because you're too old to have died young. Caring for our elderly isn't the job of an NHS care nurse with 4 hours a week to dedicate to each person, there's no room to complain that we've paid our taxes duly and so someone else should have been spooning shepherd's pie. It's down to us and we should be tripping ourselves to do it or we should be willing to let go.


  1. Great post. I'm not sure how good an ageing population is for anyone, really.

  2. We have been irresponsible when it comes to live extension, in that we haven't invented any methods of life extension at all.

    People don't, on the whole, 'live longer' today. Our lives have not been extended. What we do is live longer on average, because we are healthier and can avoid many of the things that kill us earlier.

    People lived to be 80 in the fifth century; the 50 and 30 year lifespans you see mentioned are averages, weighed down by infant mortality and mortality from disease.

    It's also wrong to say that we don't get our extra years in the middle, but at the end. I am in my mid 30s and still have all my teeth. I have basically avoided any substantial effects of aging so far; a medieval peasant would not be so lucky. Nor are members of our society who smoke or have stressful jobs; I see people my age who could pass for twenty years older.

    It's not about money. You can't say money is a fiction and blame it for the situation at the same time, it just doesn't work. The problem is that shit needs doing, and people aren't doing it.

    One of the biggest reasons for this is the age-segregation of our society. Think about the age spread of your friends. School trains us to associate with people of our age; we are divided into grades; children are taught not to speak to adults on the grounds of 'stranger danger'; adults are taught to fear being seen talking to children for the same reason. Even once we're all adults, the segregation continues, young people gather in places for the young and engage in activities for the young, and the old congregate with the old.

    It's a policy which guarantees a lonely old age, when the only people who care enough about you to look after you (unless you're lucky enough to have kids who give a shit) are as frail and helpless as you.