Why old age need not be a burden

Daphne Bernard Image copyright other
Image caption Daphne Bernard is in her 90s, but remains physically active

Meet Daphne Bernard. She is in her 90s, but remains fit and active, playing badminton and going to her local gym in Eastbourne every week.

Last year she did a 12,000ft tandem skydive for charity.

Ms Bernard is just one of a growing band of the "old old" - or fourth generation as they have been dubbed.

There are more than 1.5m over-85s in the UK. By 2030 the number will have doubled and by 2050 they will top 5m, dramatically changing the demography of the country, according to forecasts.

This is important. As a House of Lords committee report has suggested, the gift of longer life could cause a "series of crises" in the public service - not only in terms of health and social care, but for pensions, housing and employment.

But much of the projections made by this committee and other bodies that have looked at the issue of the ageing population assume old age automatically means an individual becomes a burden.

That is understandable. Research suggests that while people are living longer, they are not automatically living as long with good health.

In the two decades since 1990, life expectancy has risen by 4.6%, but healthy life by only 3%.

Maintaining friendships

Today most over-85s have between three and six long-term conditions, which includes everything from heart disease and diabetes to dementia.

It means they are more likely to end up in hospital and, when there, spend four times longer recuperating than younger people.

But there is growing evidence that with better planning - by both the state and individual - some of this can be avoided.

If the elderly are given more support in the community, they stand more chance of remaining independent and out of hospital.

In Torbay, for example, health and social care budgets have been merged, encouraging a more co-ordinated approach to caring for the elderly, resulting in a fall in hospital admissions.

A report published this week by Age UK, Improving later life, understand the oldest old, makes a similar case.

It points out that while old age does bring with it challenges, it does not necessarily need to spell a downward spiral to infirmity.

The report said that the majority of people over the age of 85 actually rate their health and quality of life as good.

But the key to this, it said, were two factors: remaining active and maintaining friendships.

The importance of living healthily is well rehearsed. But the role of socialising is often less acknowledged.

In fact, Age UK goes as far as arguing it is just as important as the physical activity bit as loneliness is a risk factor for both cognitive and physical decline.

"Older people need to be cared about, not just cared for," says Michelle Mitchell, of Age UK.

"This means listening and responding to an individual's views and choices so that an all-important sense of dignity and identity can be maintained throughout a person's life."