The Bakewell manifesto: 'We need more loos'

'We need more loos, and I'm not shy about it,' says Joan Bakewell, the new official Voice of the Elderly. Michael McCarthy reports

Monday 10 November 2008 01:00
Dame Joan Bakewell
Dame Joan Bakewell

They're the niggles you don't notice ... unless you're old. The irritations that don't bother you ... unless you're old. The nuisances that aren't a problem ... unless you're old.

But now one of Britain's best-known broadcasters is going to start pointing them out to the rest of us in her new role as the Government's official Voice of Older People.

Dame Joan Bakewell, the Sixties TV presenter who is still a prolific writer at the age of 75, said yesterday she wanted to make younger people take note of how their elders encounter the world – even in little ways. "I spend my life now noticing the problems of being old, which young people simply do not see," she said. "Some of them are matters of life and death, some of them are tiny things, but even the tiny things can become real problems."

Dame Joan has been appointed by the minister for Women, Harriet Harman, to act as an "independent and informed advocate" on issues that affect older people's lives. Her official role will include raising the profile of age equality issues and encouraging public debate around legislation dealing with age discrimination – but she made clear that she would speak out just as much about the business of everyday life and how difficult it can be.

Giving examples from loos to lifts (or the lack of both) and from opening parcels to getting served in restaurants, she said she wanted younger people to take them on board, because one day they would be their problems, too. "One of my tiny irritations," she said, "is that when you're on a plane, the cabin staff are not allowed to lift your luggage into the overhead rack, because of health and safety regulations. So old people have to call on other passengers to help them. Can we have a solution to this problem? Can someone notice it's a problem?"

Similarly, she said, dragging a wheeled suitcase could be very difficult, especially in stations on the London Underground where there are few lifts. "The world is going to have to have more lifts," she said.

Modern packaging, she said, was now so robust that it was often hard to open. Dining alone in restaurants was also difficult, not least in catching the waiter's eye. "Take a book, because it's going to be a long wait," she said.

She will even be raising awkward subjects such as the provision of public lavatories. "Nobody dares say it, but I don't mind saying it. Old people need to go to the loo more often. A lot of rather fastidious older people want to stay correct and might be worried about that kind of thing. It's a terrible thing to have to worry about."

Famously dubbed "The thinking man's crumpet" when she presented Late Night Line Up in the 1960s in notably short skirts, Dame Joan also enjoyed a long and secret liaison with the playwright Harold Pinter. Next year, her first novel, All the Nice Girls, is being published by Virago. She describes it as "quite a romance".

Minor irritants: Time for action

*Trailing a wheeled suitcase around on a trip, which is all very well until you come to somewhere like a London Underground station where there are no lifts. Getting it up the various flights of stairs can be a real problem if you're elderly. Bakewell verdict: The world needs more lifts.

*Hoisting your luggage into the overhead compartment in an aircraft. The cabin staff, believe it or not, are not allowed to help you in case they injure themselves.

Bakewell verdict: When will someone notice this problem?

*Trying to open packages that are too robustly packaged. "Sometimes you have to hack your way in with a carving knife," says Dame Joan.

Bakewell verdict: Packaging should be redesigned with older people in mind.

* Trying to attract the attention of the waiter in a restaurant if you're dining alone. One thing if you're 35, quite another if you're 75.

Bakewell verdict: take a book, it's going to be a long wait.

*Finding a public loo when you need one. Increasingly difficult as some are being closed. Very important for the elderly. Semi-taboo, but not for Dame Joan.

Bakewell verdict: provide more loos.

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