I have lived a very long time. Tomorrow, it will be exactly 94 years ago that a midwife with a love of harsh gin and rolled cigarettes delivered me into my mother’s tired, working-class arms. Neither the midwife nor my mother would have expected me to live to almost 100 because my ancestors had lived in poverty for as long as there was recorded history in Yorkshire.
Nowadays, when wealth is considered wisdom, too often old age is derided, disrespected or feared, perhaps because it is the last stage in our human journey before death. But in this era of Trump and Brexit, ignoring the assets of knowledge that are acquired over a long life could be as lethal as disregarding a dead canary in a coal mine.
I have been living on borrowed time since my birth in Barnsley all those years ago: I survived both the depression and the second world war. Even in advanced old age, because I walked free of those two events, I feel like a man who beat all the odds in a high-stakes casino. It’s why I’ve embraced each season of my life with both joy and wonderment because I know our time on Earth is a brief interlude between nonexistence.
Still, many people persist in thinking that old age is the end of one’s usefulness or purpose, which could explain why the news that women in South Korea can expect to live into their 90s has been badly received. Some fear the indignity that old age may bring, or the dependence it may cause because of physical or mental impairment. On occasion I too worry that before death sets in on me that it may rob me of the elements that make me who I am. But ultimately, having experienced the profound indignity of extreme poverty during the 1930s and the sheer terror of war in the 1940s, I know that life must be battled until the bitter end.
Eternity is just around the corner for me but I don’t fear my death. I only regret that death will end my dance to the music of time, no matter how slow the waltz has become to allow me keep up. I know that my physical wellbeing and dignity may yet be affected adversely by the government’s self-created social care crisis but I will not spend either my last years or days living in fear of the Tories. I cannot because I have seen their kind before in the 1930s and 1980s and know that the only way we can beat the tyranny of austerity is through our own personal defiance.
People should not look at their approaching golden years with dread or apprehension but as perhaps one of the most significant stages in their development as a human being, even during these turbulent times. For me, old age has been a renaissance despite the tragedies of losing my beloved wife and son. It’s why the greatest error anyone can make is to assume that, because an elderly person is in a wheelchair or speaks with quiet deliberation, they have nothing important to contribute to society. It is equally important to not say to yourself if you are in the bloom of youth: “I’d rather be dead than live like that.” As long as there is sentience and an ability to be loved and show love, there is a purpose to existence.
I learned a long ago time ago that there was wisdom and beauty that could be mined from the memories of those in the sunset of life. It is why as a boy I listened in rapt attention to my granddad as he lay dying from cancer and told me about his life both as soldier and miner during the reign of Queen Victoria.
All of you, when young, will make your own history: you will struggle, you will betray some and others will betray you. You will love and lose love. You will feel profound joy and deep sorrow and during all of this, you will grow as an individual. That’s why it is your duty when you get old to tell the young about your odyssey across the vast ocean of your life. It is why when death does come for me – even if it mauls me with decrepitude before it takes me – I will not lament either my old age or my faded youth. They were just different times of the day when I stood in the sun and felt the warmth of life.