The centenarian age is upon us. History will now live for ever

For all the strain they place on budgets for health and social care, could we treat the expanding regiment of old-old-timers not as a burden but a blessing?

“If I’d known I was going to live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself.” Like almost all the cutest quotes, this one will not stand much scrutiny. I thought the great ragtime pianist-composer Eubie Blake said it on his 100th birthday. It turns out that not only did he depart at a mere 96, but someone else had voiced the notion long before. Never mind: Eubie carried on playing, and basking in some well-deserved late limelight, up to his death in 1983.

These days, 96 increasingly sounds like no age at all. The world’s oldest living person (with the paper credentials to prove it) has just reached 117. Misao Okawa still lives in Osaka, where she was born on 5 March 1898. Now the doyenne of Japan’s 58,000-plus centenarians, Misao took over as global No 1 when her compatriot Jiroemon Kimura died at 116. Living in a retirement home, she’s hard of hearing but otherwise in good health. She eats three good meals a day and sleeps for eight hours. In contrast to the slapdash indifference to longevity displayed by Eubie Blake, she has a dietary weapon: mackerel sushi. Her eldest son, Hiroshi, paid a birthday visit. He’s 92. And the verdict on her 117 years, across three centuries? “It seems rather short.”

Attitudes to extreme old age tend to mix awe, respect and a slightly nervous condescension. Each act of homage to a heroic survivor carries an undertone of bewilderment and even fear. It’s as if these centenarians and super-centenarians – those aged 110 and over – have not only crossed into Hamlet’s “undiscovered country” but returned to tell the tale.

A study of this elite group’s needs led by Dr Catherine Evans of King’s College, London found that a large proportion of this largely female cohort actually “outlive death” from chronic illness. When they do at last move on, the ancient formula of “old age” appears on 28 per cent of death certificates, and pneumonia on 18 per cent. Having fought off almost every bodily predator except time itself, they still need more help to stay in comfort to the end. Dr Evans’s survey of 35,867 post-100 deaths in England found that too many – by European standards – took place in hospital.

The wealthy societies that host them in ever-rising numbers should do more than salute the “old-old”, bake a cake and – in this country – deliver the royal telegram. The UK now boasts almost 14,000 centenarians, compared with  3,000 in 1983; the world as a whole has more than 300,000. Here, more than 700 people have crossed the further boundary of 105. Thanks in large part to the dread of dementia and its toll on families, such a figure inspires dismay more often than delight. Yes, the burden of Alzheimer’s and other conditions is heavy: 850,000 UK sufferers at present, a million or more by 2025, and an incidence rate of one in every six over-80s. Yet only 6 per cent of people in the King’s College research died, post-100, from the consequences of dementia.

For all the strain they place on budgets for health and social care, could we treat the expanding regiment of old-old-timers not as a burden but a blessing? As a first step, institutions of all kinds might make more use of their treasury of memories. Of course, “reminiscence therapy” of the kind pioneered by the gerontologist Robert Butler is common practice now both for the well and ill. With no “treatment” for dementia-related conditions yet in sight, and cholinesterase inhibitor drugs effective only for a short time in slowing the symptoms, social stimulation remains the best medicine. Every clinical professional knows the individual value in the art of memory. As the ranks of the elder elders deepen, we need to cherish it as a collective resource too.

Sometimes the penny does drop. When the “last Tommies” died in 2009 (Henry Allingham at 113, Harry Patch at 111), public recognition struck that the Great War had passed out of first-hand memory. However rich the historical archives across all possible media, that transition opened up a momentous chasm. Now the same passage from the living soil of the human mind into printed, visual and online granaries looms for the Second World War as well.

I can remember when every middle-aged bore in the bar would bend your ear with a tedious recitation of his wartime exploits. No doubt some had massaged years of pen-pushing in the Naafi stores into undercover derring-do behind German lines. But plenty had truly – even if unheroically – been there and done that. So ubiquitous was this blazered legion of veterans that they spawned decades of takedowns from their juniors in the Beyond the Fringe and Monty Python generations.

This May, a week of commemorations will mark the 75th anniversary of the Dunkirk evacuations. It comes as a shock to those who grew up in the long shadow of wartime witness that the youngest survivors of Operation Dynamo will now be 95 or so. Another vessel of memory will, before too long, slip over the horizon. Oral historians, archivists and programme-makers do seek out and preserve this living history. Specialist historians such as Max Arthur and Richard van Emden have in their tapestries of voices from the two world wars shown that the large-scale mining of memories has mass appeal. In one area of record above all, the task feels more urgent now than ever: the Holocaust.

A variety of projects collects testimonies from Britain’s few thousand Holocaust survivors, from the Wiener Library in London to the Association of Jewish Refugees. This January, the Holocaust Commission set up by the Prime Minister recommended a unified site of remembrance in the form of a national Learning Centre. As David Cameron said in response to the commission’s report, “There will be a time when it won’t be possible for survivors to go into our schools and to talk about their experiences.” When that happens, “Who are they going to listen to? What images will they see?” Hence the pressing need to gather and distribute acts of witness. The report worried that, as the Holocaust vanishes from memory, survivor by survivor, and “there is no one left who can say, ‘I was there’”, so the risk grows that “the narratives of the deniers will become more widespread”. I strongly suspect that is already happening.

One witness may outweigh 100 polemics. Age, of course, can scramble even the sharpest reminiscences. Accounts differ. Interpretations clash. Yet even if partial or partisan, testimony still carries its own truth. Not every valid memory requires a courtroom oath. Conversely, the trauma of genocide, massacre, bombing or expulsion may lay unvisited for decades until some trigger releases buried shock. Time and again, the families of survivors report this pattern of tortured avoidance and convulsive release. Freddie Knoller, the 93-year-old Auschwitz and Belsen survivor who recently recorded a remarkable confessional interview for the BBC, stayed up all night talking to his daughters, after 35 years of silence. Britain now hosts refugees from many later spasms of slaughter and persecution. As they age, we will need to hear their stories too.

For the sake of peace, some traumatised societies prefer not to remember. In Spain, the post-Franco “pact of forgetting” shelved the guilt and shame of civil war. That has now unravelled, as all such truces probably will. In his new novel The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro explores though the vehicle of Arthurian myth the pros and cons of willed oblivion. If his British knight Sir Gawain yearns to “leave this country to rest in forgetfulness”, the Saxon warrior Wistan asks: “How can old wounds heal while maggots linger so richly?”

Any fast-ageing population must have its fair share of trauma interred in a shallow grave. Conversely, it will also have access to experiences that may bridge divisions, spread harmony and deepen sympathy. Consult the website of the Oral History Society and you will find calls for volunteers to help with current projects. Just now, one of them involves recording the recollections of Caribbean-origin nurses who worked in the NHS. Dig into our collective stock of remembrance, and the buried giant could sometimes be a hidden treasure.

Still, the memory-hoard of the elders, and especially the elder elders, remains by and large untapped. The longer they live with bodies active and minds alert, the more that we can draw on the lessons of this living past. This week we heard from Misao Okawa, born in 1898. Who else shared her birth year? If you have any interest in the culture that shaped the modern world, the roll-call turns out to be extraordinary. George Gershwin, Sergei Eisenstein, Bertolt Brecht, Enzo Ferrari, Henry Moore, Federico Garcia Lorca, Ninette de Valois, Alvar Aalto, M C Escher, C S Lewis: all were babies who arrived within a few months of Misao. Imagine if a few on that list were still around to speak today, and you begin to grasp the potential harvest that the widening span of living memory may sow.

In the meantime, anyone vain enough to believe that they might have something to share with posterity should follow Eubie Blake’s advice and start to take care of themselves now. We could begin by ordering a fridge-full of mackerel sushi.

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