Joan Bakewell: Prepare for the pleasures of old age

Old is not a place you are shunted off to when the real business of life is done
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Prepare to be old, to be very, very old. Recent projections by the Government Actuary, Adrian Gallop, promise that many more of us will live to be 100. Some 10,000 do so already: indeed the question arises whether, 20 years hence, the Queen will be sending herself a congratulatory card. The number could increase tenfold in the next 68 years. By 2074 there could be 1.2 million over 100. According to Gallop's admittedly "speculative calculation", anyone now in their thirties has a one in eight chance of getting there. So how do we view the prospect?

To most people it's a bad smell, a nasty place of bedpans and chair lifts, of bleak care homes and nurses who call you "love" and "dear" simply because to them all old people are alike. The public image of age is grim too, reinforcing a cosy contempt: too much "grumpy old..." and songs that ask "will you still love me when I'm 64?" Expecting the answer "no", of course.

Headlines that harp on pensions, euthanasia and neglect may be justified but they aren't the whole story. I know plenty of old people living feisty and fulfilling lives. My oldest friend, aged 94, is currently enjoying the writing of Garcia Marquez and, no she isn't a graduate, or a middle-class professional. She's simply a very intelligent woman whose humdrum life hasn't inhibited the use of her wits.

We need an entirely new attitude to being old. It is, after all, the destination we deliberately set out for, the result, of all those diets and exercise crazes, the purpose of the acres of health advice and food labelling. It's the natural outcome of flu jabs and Health and Safety inspections. What was it all for if not to live longer and remain fit?

We are living in a far healthier world, a cleaner environment than in my grandmother's day. At the turn of the last century, life expectancy for a man was 45 and a woman 48. How far we have come is nothing short of miraculous. Science has helped and is going on helping. Stem-cell technology is now at the threshold of developing body part replacements than can keep us regularly repaired. If the organs wear out we might replace them. We are living through a quiet revolution that is transforming the trajectory of our lives.

And in old age we are reaping the fruits. Not a sudden lurch into a smelly decline, but vistas of modest but pleasurable years ahead. Horizons no longer set by the needs of family, the ambitions of careers, the immediate and intense business of daily survival. Hip replacements, cataract operations and heart pacemakers are rendering us active, even spry. As someone in the lower foothills of old age, I can witness to the abundance of energy and and enthusiasm waiting to be used by people in their sixties and seventies.

The University of the Third Age flourishes. The Open University is full of oldies. Literary festivals throughout the summer are thronged with grey-heads keen to know and question, learn and debate. And in their leisure time, the old aren't just boozing and cruising: the hardier spirits are climbing mountains, visiting the pole, meeting sponsored challenges. I have a friend in his late seventies who has recently taken up tap-dancing. How's that for bravura!

People in power who now decide how we live need to be more aware of how the culture is shifting. As more live longer, the changes can only accelerate. Even the young need to look beyond the stereotypes. Little Britain may be funny, but it's also insulting.

"Old" is not another country, a place you're shunted off to when the real business of life is done; where you're parked in the ante-room of death and live in expectation of its imminent arrival. It is an era, as vividly a part of living as any other. It may be situated at the other extreme from youth, but being old is not being ill. Life can be as full of value and delight, of incident and insight as it is for a 20-year-old. And now every 20-year-old is likely to arrive there eventually.

The guillotine of retirement will have to end. There must be more varied and adaptable options than simply working full tilt until 60, then slamming the door on all your wisdom and experience. We shall all certainly have to work longer. The whole economic house of cards will collapse unless we do. But that doesn't mean we stay in the rat race, with the stress and competitive thrust that gives middle age its ulcers. We need to plan for part-time, less hectic working lives, in jobs that society needs and welcomes. But also jobs where we feel needed and valued.

The numbers of friends and contemporaries will thin out as years go by. Death takes its toll in the face of even the most optimistic statistics. So we will need to stay close, and grow closer. Families, friends and neighbours will take the place of business colleagues and working contacts in their daily importance. At the same time, old friends across the globe can now be in touch via the internet. I have had more contact with old school chums in the last 10 years, than in any of the earlier decades.

Yet it's is also a time for different generations to know each other, Those apparent barriers that keep them apart - text jargon, say, or crazy clothes - can be teased into some mutual respect. And the dangers of depression and stoic resignation that plague the lonely can't be ignored. I'm not saying old age is a bed of roses. But now we're all going there, lets fix it so we enjoy the journey.