As an old man, well past my Biblical sell-by date, I cannot for the life of me understand why increased longevity is received as such a universal blessing. One thing’s for sure; its celebrants are not the oldies themselves, so it is time someone challenged this assumption.
Let me start with a parable. It concerns an Eastern European country whose parliament was considering a total smoking ban. In response, a consortium of tobacco companies demonstrated that the savings made in healthcare as a result of the decline in smoking-related diseases were chicken feed besides the reduced payout in pensions as the result of premature death — not to mention the fiscal increment from the habit. In 1999, the report said, the Czech economy enjoyed a net gain of 5.8 billion koruna (£103 million) from smoking. Last year, the Czech Republic finally imposed a smoking ban in restaurants — the last EU country to do so.
Longevity is not good for governments and it’s not good for us. For the vast majority, as Ecclesiastes says, ‘The years approach and you will say, I have no pleasure in them.’ As sinews become stiff, bones brittle, breath short, eyes rheumy, ears blocked, our bodies become a burden. Our physical incompetencies are an embarrassment.
Help is at hand, naturally. Last week, I received a catalogue aimed at my invalid class with an emphasis on incontinence. It featured a plethora of gadgets to camouflage gerontal leakage — offering source obstruction, material absorption and fluid diversion. The remaining pages offered a bazaar of geriaids for putting on stockings, separating toes, amplifying sound, enhancing vision, supporting backs, necks, knees, elbows and wrists. There were tools for opening cans and jars, reducing pressure on feet, keeping food off clothes, for lying flat, sitting down and standing up. There was a blanket with sleeves for keeping warm while watching the TV.
The catalogue gave insight into a crumbling world, buttressed and cushioned with elastic, foam, Velcro and viscose. And all of it ultimately useless, because surely we should be grown up enough to recognise with dignity that we inhabit finite bodies. Aged 77, I feel like an old car: for every part that is replaced or reconditioned, another will pack up.
But in any case, the body is the least of our worries. The real issue is losing our minds. As the cells misfire, the chemicals unbalance, the synapses disconnect, we lose our faculties, along with keys, spectacles, wallets and directions. The existential reality of decline is aggravated by the prospect of total physical and cognitive disintegration, the details of which are well known to us, so we live in physical discomfort and mental terror. Old age has graduated into a form of pre-traumatic stress disorder.
Worse, we feel guilty. We obstruct the pavement and slow the traffic. We monopolise the waiting rooms and cause delays at the checkout. We block hospital beds and subsidise Big Pharma. We are a waste of space on a seriously overcrowded planet. We are in the way and those who are most impeded are the young. We can see this and are, therefore, ashamed of ourselves.
There is a simple way to bring this process to a dignified end and the tobacco anecdote gives us a clue. At the root of longevity is a preoccupation with health and safety. Today’s young people are urged to forego the joys of alcohol, the reassurance of nicotine, the delight of saturated fats, replacing them — at increased expense, by the way — with vitamins, baby oil and elixirs. They are required to wear hard hats and harnesses for any activity that might occasion a broken nail or bruised ego. Thus they will enter their eighth decade starved of joy, their souls disappointed but their bodies relatively undamaged and healthy. They will provide the reaper with endless pleasure because his job description has now changed — from terminator to tormentor. Essentially, the health-and-safety agenda programs us to live life to the empty in order to live dying to the full.
It is time to turn the clock back to a more dangerous era, but only we crumblies have the authority to advocate it. I am not obviously proposing a life of foolhardiness and debauch; but I am uncomfortably aware that as I look back, it is those moments when I went too fast, dared too much, fell too far, drank too deep which bring a smile to my lips, an ache to my heart.
My advice to young people is simple. Eat, drink, even smoke, and be generally merry, because that way you might be spared too many days of misery for yourself and your friends and family. Live short and prosper.