Extra Time

What to do with those ‘golden years’ after 80?

Jane Miller

Pensioners account for almost half of money spent on benefits in the UK.

Per­haps it’s best to see these years after 80 as extra time. Not quite extra time” as at the end of a foot­ball match: time, that is, to get a win­ning goal. But sim­ply as more time than we have a right to expect, time that is unlike­ly to yield oppor­tu­ni­ties to score off any­one else, let alone to tri­umph. I wake up with a con- fused sense of fore­bod­ing, the relics of dreams in which every­thing is in need of repair and it’s my job to do the mend­ing. This year friends have died in what seems like mid-con­ver­sa­tion. There are ques­tions I haven’t asked, feel­ings I haven’t admit­ted to.

There must be those who play golf or bridge and go on cruises until they’re 100, but the rest of us may run out of things to do.

Change and decay” are all around indeed. My moth-eat­en clothes smell of the moth­balls that have failed in their pur­pose. Part of a tooth falls out and the den­tist charges me the equiv­a­lent of a month’s pen­sion to see to it. Mon­taigne want­ed to believe that los­ing a tooth didn’t mat­ter. Look,” he wrote, here is a tooth which has just fall­en out with no effort or anguish: It had come to the nat­ur­al ter­mi­nus of its time.” And he wasn’t even 60. A mouse dash­es across the kitchen floor and then runs inso­lent rings round me as I try to entice it with peanut but­ter into an old cig­ar box. A leak­ing pipe in the cel­lar, and the plumber can’t fix it. The pipes are of a size and mate­r­i­al, he says, no one has seen in a Lon­don house for 60 years. Appar­ent­ly, I nar­row­ly missed elec­tro­cut­ing myself as I bailed out the cel­lar and whisked my buck­ets past the main elec­tri­cal meter and plugs, which were hang­ing from a damp brick wall by a sin­gle nail. I spend some of most days mend­ing the plates and cups I’ve dropped, the chair seats we’ve sat through, the sleeves that have frayed, and trip­ping over the piles of books we are always mean­ing to give away.

And we’re fail­ing to keep up with tech­nol­o­gy. What on earth would we do with Face­book and all those improb­a­ble friends it finds for you? And then so many actu­al friends are ill. For one, a 10-hour oper­a­tion fol­lowed by chemother­a­py seems prefer­able to the alter­na­tive.” Anoth­er is prey to hal­lu­ci­na­tions. I am read­ing Oliv­er Sacks on the sub­ject to find out if there are ways of defy­ing my friend’s dreamed-up mon­sters, with their malign and mis­chie­vous mock­ery.” We’re all wor­ry­ing about demen­tia and whether for­get­ting names and faces and lis­ten­ing to the BBC World Ser­vice through insom­ni­ac nights are signs that we’re los­ing it.

report from the Insti­tute of Eco­nom­ic Affairs has just announced that when we retire from work our phys­i­cal and men­tal health improves for a while, but then it dete­ri­o­rates rather quick­ly. There’s a sus­pi­cion that the report is meant to per­suade peo­ple to go on work­ing into their sev­en­ties — a fool­ish plan giv­en the appalling youth unem­ploy­ment fig­ures, though plen­ty of old peo­ple would have liked to retire lat­er, I know. There must be those who play golf or bridge and go on cruis­es until they’re 100, but the rest of us may run out of things to do. I haven’t quite reached that point, though I spend too much of each day doing cross­words when I should be mend­ing things, and I lis­ten to a good deal of radio.

It is from the radio that I learn the extent to which we extra- timers have become a heavy bur­den on the state. The Nation­al Health Ser­vice (NHS), which was work­ing well a few years ago, is now brought low, and it’s main­ly our fault, it seems. Yet the gov­ern­ment, which claims to have ring-fenced” the NHS from cuts, is still demand­ing £20 bil­lion in sav­ings” from the NHS by 2015. Hos­pi­tals and whole depart­ments are clos­ing. Still, we fill hos­pi­tal beds oth­er peo­ple need more than we do; and we account for near­ly half the mon­ey spent on ben­e­fits, though it’s the young and the poor and, of course, the scroungers,” who get the blame for that.

More and more of us are crowd­ing into this extra time, hop­ing there will be lots of young peo­ple to look after us. But the young are get­ting few­er and may not want to — or be in a posi­tion to — help us. My moth­er used to wince a lit­tle at the mar­velous, mar­velous” her age of 91 could elic­it from strangers. There’ll be no mar­velous” for my gen­er­a­tion, but per­haps some seri­ous dis­cus­sion about the legal­iz­ing of assist­ed dying. 

Jane Miller lives in Lon­don, and is the author, most recent­ly, of In My Own Time: Thoughts and After­thoughts (2016), a col­lec­tion of her In These Times columns and interviews.
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