As I walk along Banbury Road to City Centre in Oxford, I pass the [Oxford Institute of Population Ageing] (yes, that’s the way they spell it) which, I thought, might have some interesting research and across-the-pond insights to share. After all, I have noticed in North Oxford a significant population of what I would call the aging aged -- well into their 80’s I’m told, brandishing canes and walkers, but very definitely out and about in that hearty British way, “carrying on,” as they say. On my walk, I have also stumbled upon a beauty salon the proprietor established principally to serve these folks because, she says, she doesn’t just want to “do hair” or “do nails,” she wants to give the very elderly in her community a place they can still go to feel special and, in some cases, to have someone to talk to. It seems my discoveries in the neighborhood represent two ends of the spectrum when it comes to addressing aging here; in one sense, the macro (the entire demographic) and in the other, the micro (the personal).
They seem to reflect, in addition, Britain’s schizophrenic attitude toward the aging: on the one hand, everyone past 62 is respectfully showered with generous state benefits including free health care and public transportation; while on the other, policy makers are wringing their hands about how long they’re living, really -- how many old-old people there are now, how many more there are going to be in mere decades, and how many more old people there are going to be than young people then, shifting a balance that has defined populations and propelled nations for, ah, well, generations.
It’s enough to make you feel guilty for thinking you might hang in there ‘til 90, like your Dad; or for having children and grandchildren who have lowered the birth rate. Which brings me back to the individual aspect. While governments across both the developed and the developing world are re-thinking the economics of a now highly-quantified aging population and, say, which benefits should accrue for working just one-third of one’s life and which for longevity itself, individuals, it seems to me, need to stay focused on the quality of life as we age and what we can do to maintain or enhance it. In the United States, for example, it might be far more productive to think about developing housing alternatives, community resources, and better public transportation, and using our skills and experience to continue making meaningful post-retirement contributions to society than to engage political battles about changes to Social Security (none of which, let’s be clear, would affect us anyway).
Obviously the social scientists, demographers, and economists are hard at work on their assignment; after two years of walking through my father’s assisted living facility thinking, “This just won’t do; there’s got to be more to life at this stage than waiting to die,” I need to get to work on those alternatives. We all do.
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