Many more people in Britain will live to 100, new statistics suggest. But would it be worth it? Helen Fielding met four women who can tell us
I WAS asking Gwen Lelas whether she thought it was worth people living 30 or 40 years beyond their expected three score and 10. It was a slightly stupid question given that Mrs Lelas will be 107 in June, and was sitting, beautifully dressed and smiling, in a smart residential home in rural Hampshire. Her response was slightly ironic. "Oh, I think so," she said, as if I'd asked if it was worth taking afternoon tea. "I mean, it's always nice, isn't it? That's if you like it here." Then she chuckled and changed the subject. "Have you been round the world a bit? Been to America? Very outgoing, aren't they, there?"

In 1951 there were 300 people over the age of 100 in Britain. By 1992 there were 6,000. In 15 years' time 3.1 million people - 5.1 per cent of the population - will be over the age of 80, compared with 3.7 per cent in 1980. These figures were given earlier this week to a conference on "The Fourth Age in the Third Millennium" by Nick Bosanquet, Professor of Health Policy at St Mary's Hospital, London. One of his points was that the future will bring higher expectations of life beyond 80, there is greater chance of good health, and there will be greater variations in the quality of life among so-called Fourth Agers.

The Third Age, as it is dubbed by sociologists, or the age of the young retired, has had something of a facelift, image-wise, in recent years. The notion of sixty- and seventysomethings as fit, active and independent has been fairly well promoted. But the very elderly still lack that positive image. Who includes the decades beyond 80 in their imaginative life-span? Who imagines they want to live so long? Thirty, 40 years of potential life are buried under an unappetising image of urine smells and circles of relic-style people staring gaga at the television.

As Bosanquet says, for people who become heavily dependent, disabled or long-term ill these can be very difficult years. "But if you stay reasonably healthy your morale may be better in your nineties than your sixties. You start to feel lucky: you've joined an elite." Last week I visited four women in good health in their 100s, to try and find out what life after 80 has to offer.

The first lady I visited, Edith Robinson, lives in her own home on her own and is 105. She answered the door herself, walking with a frame and beaming excitedly. She looked tiny, but upright, neatly dressed in a tartan pinafore dress and a cream jumper. She doesn't hear well - but she talks lucidly. She was fun and is extremely charming, smiling and holding your gaze as she speaks.

The room where we sat was full of centenarian memorabilia - a telegram from the Queen, a certificate from the Pope... Edith married for the first time at the age of 82, to a postman 10 years her junior. Sadly, he died two years later. In earlier life she studied music, became a nurse, then took civil service exams. She worked at the Post Office for 32 years and lived with her mother until she died when Edith was 72. Her first fiance was killed in the First World War.

She has two helpers for a couple of hours five days a week. Her step- daughter helps and visits a lot and does the garden. Edith dresses herself, gets her own tea and supper and looks after herself for much of the time.

The first 20 had been her best years, she said. And after that? "Well! I've really like it the last, er, 40 or 50 years since I retired. That's the time to indulge in the pastimes that you haven't had time for before." Until two years ago Edith played the church organ every Sunday. Now, she tells me, she writes letters, reads a little, goes to church in a taxi on Sundays, and still plays the piano. "Middle age, that's the worst time of a woman's life. The eighties are much better than the fifties. I used to feel depressed then. I feel as well now as when I retired. I've never taken any notice of age."

Is there a difference between eighties, nineties and 100s?

"Well, it's very nice when you past a hundred. I get made more of now than I've ever been in my life. Some years after my mother died I had very little company." She had she said noticed a change in attitudes to early old age. "If I'd been born 30 years earlier I'd have had a much better time when I first retired. Yes! You see them dancing, going on lovely holidays, making love, even going on Blind Date!"

Before I leave, she takes me through to the front room and plays, with just slightly shaking hands, "Moonlight and Roses" on the piano. Here is another room filled with photographs of parties and occasions, all with Edith beaming in the centre. "As I say, they all make a lot of me now," she says, beaming again.

It's a cheering thought that, beyond a certain age, life might buck the perceived trend and grow more fun, boosting your self-esteem a little more with every year that goes by. Professor Mike Bury, at Royal Holloway, London University, is co-author of Life After Ninety. "Over 95 and 100, a special effect takes hold," he says. "The increased threat of disability, dependency and death is matched with celebration and a sense of achievement. It's a double-edged sword."

Theories about patterns of ageing vary, but it is generally agreed that the stages of deterioration are a more personal thing with humans than, say, cars. You cannot, for example, predict that a joint will give out at 70 years, as a gearbox might fail at 70,000 miles. It's harder to distinguish eighty- and ninetysomethings than thirties and forties, but distinctions are there.

Professor Bury spoke broadly of the years between 75 and 85 as ones of potentially difficult family relationships, where carers may be having to cope with your needs over a long period of time, before you attain the special state of extreme old age. Memories, too, define the decades. "Those in their nineties and 100s now are generations marked by the First World War. Those in their eighties are unlikely to have fought, or lost husbands. In your nineties you might become more disengaged from life, contented with a more minimal lifestyle." There is a 50 per cent chance you will be in care. And life, increasingly, will be man-less - eight out of 10 people in their nineties are women.

Gwen Lelas, born in 1888, was being typically half-serious in suggesting that the special effect has peaked for her. "You see," she laughed, "I've been over 100 for quite a number of years, now, so people get used to it." We were talking in her small but pretty room in the Boldremead Rest Home, Hampshire. "I've got a five-mile view on a clear sunny day. It's beautiful."

Gwen sometimes repeats herself, but she is a good conversationalist and funny. "I ought to be knitting, but I'm not a knitter ... are you a knitter?" Instead, she goes to a craft club twice a week, and takes lots of trips in the home's minibus. Two years ago she was invited to visit the House of Lords and spent the night at the Hilton in London. When a selection of Hampshire's centenarians (there are, for some reason, over 20) were taken out for dinner three years ago she announced the arrival of the "Antiques Roadshow". She has a glass of wine or sherry during the day and a brandy at night, and by all accounts has a very good time.

She was brought up in China, ("I went up the Yangtze river in 1895. That's before you were born ... was it?" - a favourite, repeated, joke.) Her husband, who worked for Reuters, died in 1929. She remains interested in the world, and keeps turning the interview round the other way, always slightly sending herself up, High Court judge-style - "Do you type? On a computer? What are they? Really!" "We're giving Hong Kong back, aren't we? Do you know the date?"

She brushes off any attempts at the philosophical. Is it better being in your 100s than nineties? "Oh no. I think it's better to hang on to your youth." Had her later years taught her anything new? "Oh dear, um, let me see. Do you remember that old saying: `It's being so cheerful as keeps me going,' he he he."

What seemed to have sustained all the women was an un-neurotic, accepting approach to life. "Anything that comes along, I'm willing to accept it," was Gwen Lelas's line, echoing Edith Robinson: "I never really minded anything. I'm sort of complacent, you know, I take life as it comes." What Gwen also conceded, seriously for once, was that when she reached her nineties what she wanted most was to be taken care of and that it was extremely important that if you were going to be in a home, to be in a good one.

This was borne out by a visit to Bella Storer, just 100, who seemed less active than Edith and Gwen but very happy indeed. "Happy? 'Course I'm happy. I have a lovely time!" It was easy to see why. She was living in a private residential home, Heywood House in Ealing, London, which was beautifully decorated, Laura Ashley style, with big bedrooms and brass double bedsteads. More important still was the atmosphere. The staff had eradicated That Smell and condescension - two potentially depressing aspects of residential care. She joins in activities most days, and sits in the garden all summer. She lived alone in a flat until 18 months ago. Was it better there or here? "Oh here. It's lovely. There's company. I don't say a lot to them but they're very happy with me and I'm happy with them."

What Bella shared with all four women I spoke to was a view that happiness is not so much causal as state you choose. "If I make myself happy, naturally I will be, but if I make myself miserable, naturally I shall be miserable." They all seemed to share a view that beyond 80 you stop feeling older as you get older.

In a council home near Bristol, Minnie Franklin, also just 100, seemed less happy with her surroundings. But when her daughter, aged 60, said that she didn't like being old herself, Minnie's response was. "Old! Noooo she's not old! I went to work till I was 70! I thought I was an old woman then. Eighty, 90, 100. Makes no difference to me. I think I'm young, now!"