Christina Patterson: Please tell us what to do about getting old

I look at the pension supplements piling up next to my sofa and I feel sick
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The Independent Online

Poor darlings, they're knackered. All that feeding and washing and wiping. All that explaining of what they must and mustn't do. All that driving. So much driving. Sure, children are tiring, but we're not talking about children. We're talking about ageing parents.

In the past couple of years, six of my close friends have seen parents catapulted from steady, trying, normal ageing to sudden, rapid, super-distressing decline. Some are in the early stages of dementia. Others have blood diseases, or eye problems, or hip problems, or cuts and bruises from falls. My own dear mother is still recovering from the fall she had when taking an "old lady" to a funeral, and the cut she got in her shin from a shopping bag the other day, which then got infected, and from the weird inflammation of the heels which stopped her from walking more than a few yards, and from the operation for her glaucoma and the funny build-up of fluid in her legs. It is, we joke whenever I ask her that Pandora-box-unleashing question "how are you", like painting the Forth Bridge. But this is all bog-standard, still-coping ageing. My mother can still get herself to the hospital. She can still pick up her prescriptions and cook her own meals.

Those of my friends' parents who can't are miserable. They have adult children running themselves ragged to look after them, on top of childcare, often, and on top of jobs, and still they're miserable. They have comfortable homes and pensions and still they're miserable. But they shouldn't be, frankly. Because this is the golden age of old age. This is as good as it gets.

The comfortable homes, actually, are something of an issue. My friends, in rather less comfortable homes, have been eyeing up the comfortable homes and seeing if not a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow then at least a tiny little piggy bank to help to tide them over. But for every minute that their parents linger on, the prospect of that piggy bank shrinks. And for my friends, like me, there is no comfortable pension. And for some of them, like me, there are no prospective nursemaids in the form of children. One doesn't want to be negative, but really it's not looking good.

In Awaydays, a new film about 1970s gang violence in Liverpool released next month, a young Joy Division fan has a noose hanging in his den to remind him of death. Perhaps we all need something similar to remind us of old age. Or perhaps, at a time when exam boards are planning to offer courses for 12-year-olds in budgeting for a baby, we should be given courses on budgeting for ageing, too. It never, I'm afraid, occurred to me that money mattered. Everyone in my family was a teacher or a civil servant or a nurse. They didn't earn much, but they knew there would be pensions. You would, like Othello, do the state some service and the state would pay you back.

We don't yet know whether the state will be able to continue to pay back all the people that have done it some service, or indeed if it will be able to pay for anything very much, but we do know that those of us who have paid our stamps will be lucky to get our 90 quid a week. And those of us who have, in a state of panic, rather late in the day, been putting little bits into little pension pots in different workplaces will be lucky to match that.

Martin Amis told me in an interview the other day that when some "awful document" turns up, the thing to do is "sort of stand near your wife looking helpless". Excellent advice, I'm sure, but for those of us without wives, a bit tricky. When "awful documents" arrive on my doorstep, outlining the Mars Bar a month I'll get from Norwich Union, and the Twix I'll get from Friends Provident, I look at them and feel sick.

I look at the pension supplements, too, piling up next to my sofa. "Rescue your pension!" "How much do I need?" "Is my money safe?" I look at them – at the giant red letters, and the pictures of Jenny, 37, a teacher, whose salary is £43,000 and whose pension at 60 will be £20,425 and of Sam, 45, an account executive, whose salary is £40,000 and whose pension at 66 will be £8,742 – and I feel sick. I'm already jealous of Sam. Sam will be rich compared with me. But Jenny? I could kill Jenny. Or perhaps I just need that noose.

In the current little blip still ludicrously known as the credit crunch, most pensions have lost a third of their value and some have lost a half. Those pensions supplements have features asking "should I save for a pension?" and the "yes" and "no" boxes are the same size. So can somebody tell me what the hell we're supposed to do? And can we please start teaching the nation's children that if they want an ordinarily miserable old age they'd better start saving now.