Is living for a century now a realistic ambition?It is 45 years since Paul McCartney wondered whether he would still be needed or fed by the time he reached 64 – an age that to him, a stripling of 25, then seemed scarcely imaginable. Were he to revisit those lyrics today he would need to add some years to the figure. A survey, reported yesterday, shows that the average person wants to live until 83 and that a quarter of us wouldn’t mind hanging on until we notch up a century.
I should like to see the results of a survey on a related subject: at what average age do people alter their newspaper reading habits and turn to the obituaries first? I reached that landmark a few years back. The motive for this seemingly morbid preoccupation is not just to check up on friends and acquaintances but to look at the ages achieved by the deceased and speculate on how much longer I might expect for myself.
Yesterday, as it happened, this proved an immensely heartening exercise; for the three obituaries in the Telegraph totalled 287 years. Dom Mintoff and Don Charlwood died at 96 and Phyllis Diller at 95.
“Is this a record?” I wondered aloud. Then, leafing backwards through the paper, I came across the tale of the Melises, nine Sardinian siblings with a combined age of 818. That is indeed a record, just recognised by Guinness World Records after a careful study of the supporting documentation.
All this will surely have provoked despair among pension providers and their actuaries, whose calculations of how long we might live never seem to keep up with the reality. For our average lifespans have, in recent years, increased at what to them must be an alarming pace.
A mere 23 years ago Alan Bennett, in his play An Englishman Abroad, wrote: “If you live to be 90 and can still eat a boiled egg they think you deserve the Nobel Prize.” Today he might want to increase the target figure by some 10 per cent, as well as setting a more demanding gastronomic challenge. Even George Bernard Shaw, who died in 1950 at the then remarkable age of 94, would probably not now tell an admirer, as he did a year before his death: “I am extinct.”
Modern advances in medicine are clearly a major factor; yet the Sardinian siblings, whose ages range from 78 to 105, have an alternative theory. They attribute it in part to being surrounded by 150 descendants – children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. While I am prepared to accept that my son and his three children help me keep a spring in my step, a 40-fold increase in their number would very probably have the reverse effect.
So would I like to live as long as Consolata Melis, the 105-year-old? Possibly not, even though the compensations of growing older do much to soften its disadvantages. When Pablo Picasso was 82 he said: “One starts to get young at the age of 60 and then it is too late.” I see what he means, but I’m not sure that I go along with it.
Certainly an advantage of advancing years is that I no longer feel bound to conform to a code of behaviour. At sports grounds I stay doggedly in my seat when all around me are leaping to their feet in a Mexican wave. Similarly, I do not participate in the American convention of giving standing ovations at the end of nearly every theatrical performance, good or bad – a practice that has now spread to the West End. Instead, I smile at my cheering neighbours and point to my hip. From my position of seniority I can observe, too, that young people are more considerate than I was at their age. More often than not I am offered a seat on trains and buses by people who, unlike me, have paid for their ticket. And my wife and I shall long be grateful to the security guard at the Olympic Park.
With thousands of departing spectators from the 100 metre finals, we made our way to the station. We had just joined the seemingly infinite queue when a kind man plucked us from it, along with a few others of our age group, and directed us towards a short cut through the shopping centre. One of his colleagues ensured that we were on the train, comfortably seated, within 10 minutes.
Despite such fringe benefits, 105 might be a target too far. Nor am I certain about Phyllis Diller’s mark of 95. But 83? Ask me in 2021.
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