Grow old disgracefully

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The police forces of three countries launched a massive search for three British holidaymakers last week, even using helicopters to look for Alice Houghton, her husband Roy and her brother Walter Sheppard, who failed to arrive at the villa they had rented in the South of France. When they were discovered safe and well in a rented apartment near the Spanish border on Friday morning, it turned out that they hadn't known they were missing; they had simply changed their holiday plans and not got round to informing their families in this country. Naturally this worried their immediate relatives but would anyone else have bothered if the trio had not been 77, 78 and 80? Some people of this age are unused to driving abroad but the Houghtons had done the same journey 20 times before and turned out to be seasoned travellers.

The story of the "missing pensioners" is a very good example of the way in which contemporary attitudes to older people lag behind reality. People over 65 are automatically described in newspapers as pensioners and the word is freighted with negative connotations: frail, redundant, literally "pensioned off". This is the case even though some people of that age are still working and the ones who aren't may be in perfectly good health, a trend that has been spotted by travel companies which specialise in taking them round antiquities in Jordan or on hiking holidays in China. Yet they are still largely ignored or patronised by a culture that is obsessed with youth, while the rest of us are constantly being told that getting old makes us a potential burden on the state.

We have already had innumerable warnings about the "pensions crisis" facing those of us in who are now in our forties and fifties. Now a report in the journal Science, suggesting that Western politicians have underestimated how long their citizens are likely to live, has produced a round of scare stories about a looming "health crisis" – and thus more evidence of our society's fear of ageing. I mean, isn't increased longevity a good thing? Who are these people who are dismayed by the thought of living longer, a privilege that has historically been reserved for a wealthy elite? The Queen Mother's death at the age of 101 produced endless tributes to her longevity, which failed to point out that most of us could extend our lifespan if we had access to the best doctors and a team of servants to relieve us of bothersome tasks such as trying to book a Virgin train ticket.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that older people enjoy life at least as much as the young, as long as they remain in reasonable health; another study published last week, this time by the Social Issues Research Centre, challenged accepted wisdom by suggesting that post-menopausal women are happier, healthier and more confident than their younger counterparts. It also claimed that they are reaching their sexual peak, with almost 30 per cent saying their sex lives had improved after the age of 50. The figure rose to half among women who were taking HRT.

Good news all round, then, as far as I can see. But it has yet to produce a significant change in our attitudes towards the old, and it is becoming clear that the very language we use is in urgent need of redefinition: if a female baby born this year in France or Japan already has a 50/50 chance of living to be 100, as the latest research suggests, at what point will she become elderly? The sixties, in this dramatically changed context, begin to look more like early middle age, a development that makes nonsense of the current retirement ages for men and women.

It has been obvious for some time that they are set too low, requiring us to accumulate massive pension funds to support ourselves at a time when many of us would prefer to go on working – not necessarily full-time or at the same jobs, but experienced older people are under-valued at the moment and would benefit enormously from a more flexible job market. But those changes will only come about when people in power – employers, doctors and journalists for a start – stop thinking about everyone in their seventies as easily confused and in poor health. Some of them are just as capable as any teenager of disappearing in the South of France for a few days, as the French police found last week.