Captain Sir Tom Moore persuaded us to look at elderly people in a different light – this will be his legacy

Too often we hide elderly people away, embarrassed by the burden they may bring. Captain Tom changed all this – he didn’t just lift the national mood in a crisis, he altered our outlook

Tom Moore Tributes

In a brilliant essay about care homes, written in 2009, AA Gill asked his readers to play a game. Go out into the street, find an old person and try to guess their age. His point was this: while most of us could probably spot the difference between a 21-year-old and a 28-year-old, we would struggle to identify the age of anyone over 60 with any accuracy.

“You can’t read the gradations and patinas,” writes Gill. “Not that old people hide them; you can’t tell because you don’t look. And you don’t look because you don’t care. Really, who cares how old the old are? Old is a destination. There is nothing after old. Just nothing.”

Captain Sir Tom Moore’s greatest achievement – greater than the knighthood or the £32m he raised for the NHS – is that he forced us to look and to care about old people. Too often we hide them away, embarrassed by the burden they bring, afraid they might let us down. So much easier to shuffle them off to a care home. Out of sight and out of mind. We associate old people with the stench of death and decline – who wants that hanging around?  

Captain Tom changed all this. He did not just lift the national mood in a crisis; he fundamentally altered our outlook. Gill understood that old was not a “destination”. He understood that it was simply a chapter, no less valuable than any other chapter, of a life.  

But we don’t like to be told. We like to see things with our own eyes. And we could hardly have missed Captain Tom, on every front page and news bulletin, as he stubbornly completed 100 laps of his garden. He amplified the message – that old is not a “destination” – so loudly, it will be forever ringing in our ears.

Captain Tom was the counterargument to the distressing message, pedalled by lockdown sceptics and those seeking to underplay the seriousness of this pandemic, that the many thousands of deaths should be seen as the inevitable consequence of age or underlying health conditions. As if age or ill health meant those deaths – and therefore those lives – mattered less. To see Captain Tom receiving a knighthood or publishing a book 100 years after he was born was to know that this argument was wrong. His achievements were remarkable, his life story thrilling, not despite his age but precisely because of it.

The numbers are worth reflecting on. If we take Gill’s point – “I bet you can’t mark a decade between 60 and 90” – and we assume that not everyone will live to 90, let alone 100, the years we are willing to write off, to dismiss with a wave of the hand as “old age”, shames us. A 75-year-old may easily have another 20 years ahead of them. An 80-year-old another 10 or 12 or 15. Now consider, if you are in your 30s or 40s or 50s, all the things you have done and seen and experienced in the past decade. How dare we assume to take that time away from people at the other end of their lives and neatly seal it off in a box marked “past it”.    

Not every old person is like Captain Tom; but nor is every young person alike. Our great hypocrisy is to demand independence and to insist on individuality for ourselves, while seeking to deprive old people of those same rights. We should not only honour elderly people when they confound expectations. The fact of a life lived – of still being lived – should be enough to earn our respect. To lump old people together as some wrinkly, amorphous mass is to deny individuals the dignity we take for granted.

One of the most heartening, but underreported, elements of Captain Tom’s story was that he had lived with his daughter and her family for years. He was not ushered to the sidelines. He was given the opportunity to continue to partake in life. The rewards for him, as well as his family, were obvious. This is not to criticise the millions of families who have no choice but to put their elderly relatives in care homes. For many, this is the best option, particularly if physical and mental decline means a parent or relative needs specialist or constant attention. But the point, I think, still holds: if we value any life, we must value all life, and the greatest way of doing this is to give your time. To listen and include. To look and to care.    

Had Captain Tom never walked a single lap of his garden, had his face not become synonymous with hope across the country, his story, his long life surrounded by those who loved him, would still have been uplifting – an illustration of how things can and should be done.    

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