So Just How Do You Live to Be 100?

Article excerpt


DO YOU personally know any oldies aged 100? Probably not. It's still pretty rare. Do you know anyone in their 90s? Possibly yes. Within your own family or circle of friends, the chances are that there's one person of that age.

What about people in their 80s? Of course. Silly question. You know lashings of them.

I wouldn't have written that 40 years ago - nor could I write it in 40 years' time. Oldies in the past were folk over 70, and not many of them were around. In the future, oldies will be, well, most of us.

People in their 90s will be commonplace. There will be many centenarians.

You just have to look at the facts revealed by recent censuses. In 1951, there were 251 people in Britain over 100. In 1971 there were 1,185. In 1991, 4,400. The prediction for 2030 is 30,000.

Economists, sociologists, doctors and politicians have got to make plans for such an upheaval. How are they going to be supported? Who will pay when the retired outnumber the taxpaying workers? Who will look after them?

Then there are the moral and ethical aspects. Will it be worth it, struggling on longer, kept going by science? What about euthanasia?

Questions, questions which will keep being asked as the statistics pile up. But what about the human beings behind the figures? Who are these oldies, how did they get there, how do they explain it?

A survey of 100 people aged 100 is due to be published this week by the charity DGAA Homelife - the Distressed Gentlefolk Aid Association, as it used to be known.

The charity questioned 78 women and 22 men, three-quarters of them living in some sort of residential home. Most had been married, came from large families but hadn't had many children themselves and were said to have a `positive attitude to life'.

It so happens that I have spent the past year talking to people born in 1900. It's for a millennium book, a look at the century through the eyes of people who were there, right from the beginning.

And what a century they have witnessed. People born in 1900 have seen the arrival of motorcars, aeroplanes, radio, television, computers. They have lived through two world wars and the rise and fall of communism.

They have seen the discovery of antibiotics, death in childbirth and childhood all but disappear and a free health service arrive. Contraception is available for all and sex, once simply a device for breeding, is now seen as a sport or a pastime.

When I started I feared it would be hard to find more than six people, aged 96-97, mentally and physically capable of being interviewed for at least two hours, with their wits and memorabilia about them. In the end, I interviewed 26.

The idea started with my father-in-law, Arthur Forster, in Carlisle. I always envied him being born in l900. It means you always know how old you are - the same age as the century. I also envied the amount of beer he could put away, and how he did all his gardening and decorating himself till he was 94.

And his breakfasts, my God, his breakfasts. Every day of his life he had a massive fry-up - bacon, eggs and sausages, all those things said to be bad for us.

Most of my 26 oldies have drunk alcohol all their lives. One was a teetotal Quaker: Dorothy Ellis signed the pledge almost from birth and only broke it once - on a voyage to Australia, she had to toast the Queen and some rotter handed her a sherry.

One of those I interviewed, ex-public school and Oxford, was an alcoholic but recovered to live to his present ripe age. Many of them still drink a whisky every evening or, like former Manchester factory worker Emma Logan, has a Guinness every day.

On the whole they have been fairly moderate in their food and drink.

Several did smoke, but gave it up years ago. …