Terry Martin in Southampton reflects on 'long life' as he anticipates his mother's 101st birthday:
I am writing these words shortly after the death of Prince Philip, at the age of 99 years, and a few days before my mother Doris celebrates her 101st birthday. Both have, by any standards, lived long lives. Living to a very old age can be considered a blessing. However, quantity of life does not necessarily trump quality of life. Quantity of life is straightforward chronology, but quality of life is more problematic to measure. There is the quality as experienced by the individual concerned but also others around them.
Those left behind, grieving the death of an elderly loved one, are often consoled by the utterance 'They had a good innings', as if longevity inevitably equates with goodness. For these two particularly people I think it does, although my view might be considered biased! The Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca said that ‘life, if well lived, is long enough’. My mother has both lived well and lived a long time.
Part of the fascination with longevity is the huge range of events and experiences that the individual has lived through. My mother is a World War I ‘Baby Boomer’, belonging to a cohort that had the largest number of births in our history.
Britain experienced a sudden spike in the birth rate after millions of young men returned from the front and married their sweethearts after the war ended in November 1918. The number of births in England and Wales leapt by 45 per cent between 1918 and 1920.(1)
World War I cast, and continues to cast, a long shadow and almost everyone born during and immediately after it suffered losses; my mother lost an uncle, brother of her own mother, my grandmother.
By the time of the outbreak of World War II, my mother was still a teenager but later served in the Women's Voluntary Services (WVS); her service included typing up the battle plans for D-Day. Her fiancé, later her husband Eric, my father, was in the Territorial Army, part of the British Expeditionary Force sent to France in September, 1939, and evacuated from Dunkirk in June 1940. Not surprisingly she displays the stoicism characteristic of that generation and is largely unfazed by Covid-19. It is not chronological age that is most important but the character of the person to face challenges and circumstances.
My mother has resisted, with characteristic bluntness, several attempts by family members to get her to emulate Captain Tom Moore (born several days after her), by pushing her walker around the garden.
The digital revolution has bypassed most, but not all, older people, including my mother; her one concession has been her Kindle, which has enabled her to continue her love of reading despite failing eyesight from macular degeneration. Another passion is Scrabble and no one who visits her can escape without playing a game. When not playing Scrabble or reading her Kindle, she enjoys watching interminable episodes of Countdown and The Chase.
She continues to enjoy her own company, cherishing her independence and looking after herself in the same home she has lived in for nearly 60 years; over 50 of those years on her own without my father, who sadly died in 1970, a month after my wedding.
Gratitude is one of the greatest virtues and I am so thankful that my mother is incredibly grateful for the regular visits she gets from family members; four children (of which I am the eldest), and their spouses, nine grandchildren and six great grandchildren. She is, sadly, not typical in this respect. Many older people live alone, with often few or no visitors and consequently experiencing intense loneliness.
She is also grateful that, in her inimitable words, she has kept her marbles. Dementia is one of the greatest blights upon those growing old, and to be spared its indignities is indeed a blessing both for her and her family.
There are many stereotypes, both positive and negative of older people and the ageing process, which many have come to fear.(2) There are several charities today dedicated to both supporting older people and challenging some of the unhelpful and damaging stereotypes. These charities include Anna Chaplaincy, Caraway - Spiritually Resourcing the Older Person, Faith in Later Life and Centre for Ageing Better. They all produce excellent resources for older people, their carers and families.
Nevertheless, we do face a demographic challenge with future significant increases in the older population coupled with a decrease in the working population. This can lead to resentment, the opposite of gratitude, and maintaining intergenerational harmony will be a task for both politicians and church members.
2. Rylee Dionigi, Stereotypes of Aging: Their effects on the health of older adults, Journal of Geriatrics, 2015 (1):1–9.
Terry Martin, 15 April 2021
Terry is a trustee of Caraway: 'Celebrating the wisdom and richness of old age, Caraway is a Christian charity that aims to promote the spiritual well-being of the older person in Southampton.'
Caraway supports a team of Anna Chaplains in the port city.