Leading Article: The lengthening race against death

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IT WAS Samuel Johnson who celebrated in verse the vigour of old age: 'His frame was firm, his powers were bright/Though now his eightieth year was nigh.' This century has seen the average lifespan extend beyond biblical ken, a source of joy to many but also a vale of twilight for those who linger, thanks to modern medicine, in what Dr Johnson called the 'cold gradations of decay'.

This week sees the appearance of a handbook for the increasing numbers destined to care for their elderly parents. Its author intends to fulfil a need hitherto unanswered. There are, by some estimates, 4 million people who spend 20 hours or more each week caring for an elderly relative.

The freakish results of the century's demography are partly to blame. Until after the First World War, it was almost universal practice to marry and bear children young. Thus today's 90-year-olds, and there are plenty of them, may themselves have children in their seventies. In a generation's time the picture may be different, since more women are delaying childbirth until marriage, career and home are firmly established. But for the moment it is not only the young and middle-aged who care for the old, it can often be the old themselves.

The handbook lists some 600 organisations that provide advice and services to those caring for an older relative. It appears at a time when there is better awareness of how the old should be treated in a culture that since 1945 has placed such a premium on youth. Denied the reverent esteem of the Chinese family or the extended bonds of the Mediterranean, the elderly citizen in northern Europe can be condemned to loneliness and isolation.

There is said to be a trend away from the automatic consignment to an expensive and perhaps impersonal nursing home. It needs to be reinforced, despite the formidable social obstacles in its path. Today's families are smaller. People live farther apart, driven from their family roots by the imperative of employment or property prices. The rise in divorce and remarriage exercises the mathematical effect of multiplying responsibilities later in life.

Meanwhile, throughout Western economies social security systems intended to provide from cradle to grave are under strain. 'Who can run the race with death?' inquired Johnson in his last year. That race is yet longer now.