Radio 4's The Invisible Age, review: A wise, mature reflection on our ageing population


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The Invisible Age, Matthew Sweet's terrific three-part Radio 4 reflection on how we view our ageing population, began with the sound of ticking.

This wasn't to illustrate the passing of time so much as the language invariably employed to describe the older generation. According to the media, government and assorted think-tanks, the elderly – as they are amorphously known – are seen not as an asset but as a drain on resources, a looming crisis, or, most frequently, a "ticking time-bomb".

On the face of things, the increase in life expectancy should be a cause for celebration, though the most common reaction to our ageing population is anxiety. Society has split into two tribes – old and young – with each viewing the other with hostility.

Currently there are nearly 1.5 million people in the UK over the age of 85 and by 2050 that number will have increased to around 5 million. Sweet's programme was based on the conviction that we need to re-think our attitude to ageing, and look sceptically at those who spread panic about increased lifespans.

It was a view echoed by Baroness Sally Greengross, the anti-ageism campaigner, who noted that even the concept of change had changed: "Change is quicker, faster and more frequent. My iPhone, which is fairly new, is already out of date. If everything that is old is out of date, then everything that is new, i.e. younger, is better."

Sweet's discussion took him from Hanoverian England and Malthusian theory to the cult of youth that emerged after the Great War and the ruthless culling of the over-21s in the novel Logan's Run. He met the 95-year-old philosopher Mary Midgley, who had one of the wisest voices I've ever heard, and visited the Gateshead Older People's Assembly, an organisation through which older people campaign for their rights or simply hang out together. There he spoke to a range of people who talked, with enormous clarity, about the disconnect between how society sees them and how they see themselves.

This was the nub of the programme – giving voice to those people who are forever being shunted out of view. It was wonderful to hear them not mulling over their mortality, but fighting for that which was due, and sharing the wisdom that can only come from longevity.

There's nothing new about ageing, nor the anxieties that surround it. But in bringing philosophical and moral context to the debate, Sweet and his interviewees encouraged us to regard our elders with fresh and respectful eyes. We have a lot to learn from those who came before us, if only we would let them speak.

Age-related anxiety was rife in Radio 4's Suppose I Lose It, in which Joan Bakewell, one of the smartest octogenarians in the country, worried that she may be losing her marbles. Her concerns about memory loss – manifested in her inability to remember names or find phone numbers – had been thrown into relief by her friend Prunella Scales' dementia diagnosis.

Bakewell's investigation was focused not on the political implications of the disease, but the effect on communities and individuals, and it was her conversations with Scales, and her husband, the actor Timothy West, that were most revealing. While Scales complained of forgetting things, she had no idea of the extent of her condition: "I'm not aware that I've got all that serious a problem," she said firmly.

Such is the eternal conundrum of dementia: the sufferer's very logical denial. How, after all, can you remember what you can't remember?