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  • Writer's pictureDebbie Thrower

How old is ‘old’?

Terry Martin, in another of his occasional articles for us, has been thinking about old age – chronology versus functionality:

‘Last scene of all,

That ends this strange eventful history,

Is second childishness and mere oblivion;

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.’

William Shakespeare, through these well-known words spoken by Jaques in As You Like It, does not give us a very flattering image of old age and older people. Those of us concerned in practical ways about the well-being of ‘older’ people will have almost certainly considered the question: How old is an older person? Chronological answers abound, but any such answer is inevitably arbitrary and contingent upon time and place. When or where life expectancy is 50 years, then anyone aged 45 is old!

I want to argue that functional considerations are more important than the chronological age someone has reached. By functional considerations I mean those specific things that someone can actually do, or not do, as the case may be.

If someone can clearly remember what they did yesterday then as far as memory is concerned they are not an old person. Similarly, if someone can clearly recognise family members and longstanding friends then as far as recognition is concerned they are not an old person.

Whilst a full set of teeth and good eyesight do not necessarily entail youth; dentures and spectacles can help to prolong it. A ‘second childishness’ is not inevitable, although some mental deterioration might be, and there are positive things that can be done by both the individual and their carers to mitigate against this.

On 25 July 2009, Harry Patch died at the grand old age of 111; he was the last surviving combat soldier of World War I from any country to have fought in the trenches. Obituaries in the national press today often contain accounts of veterans of World War II; men and women usually in their nineties and sometimes centenarians. Although that war is rapidly fading from our collective memory.

‘Collective memory refers to the shared pool of memories, knowledge and information of a social group that is significantly associated with the group's identity.’ [1]

Events such as World War II are likely to be of enormous significance to an older generation that lived through them and entailed considerable sacrifices. Memories of such times can be central to their sense of identity, and as memories fade identities can also become fragile. In the case of the world wars, memories are fortunately kept alive nationally by the annual traditions of services of remembrance. As Tim Stanley says in his recently published and much-acclaimed book, Whatever Happened to Tradition? History, belonging and the future of the west:

‘Tradition is not just a pretty thing, much less dead or to be curated – it is the past brought to life, guiding us through the present, offering a roadmap to the future.’ [2]

In conversations with older people, it may be important to keep their personal and family traditions alive and thereby help them bring these traditions to life and honour them.


[2] Tim Stanley, Whatever Happened to Tradition? History, belonging and the future of the west (Bloomsbury, 2021).

Terry Martin – trustee of Caraway ‘for those that are older but still young at heart’.




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