Dr Frank Dunn on the importance of older people

I have taken recently to re-visiting some of my favourites on TV and radio.

I love seeing repeats of Guess Whose Coming to Dinner and A Few Good Men and the great comedies such as Fawlty Towers. On the radio, I have been listening to old recordings of Desert Island Discs. One of Terry Wogan’s choices was a song I had never heard of, entitled When you Are Old, beautifully sung by Gretchen Peters. I will quote from the lyrics of the second verse : When you are old and full of sleep, And death no longer makes you weep, When your body aches with cold, I’’ll warm your heart when you are old.

The idea of the song came from a similarly named poem by W. B. Yeats. I knew nothing of either the song or the poem, but it touched a cord and got me thinking about the importance of older people in our society. I choose older rather than old, as I am not sure when we actually can be defined as being old. I am 74 and feel distinctly middle aged. Perhaps when I am 84, I will concede that I fall into the category of being old.

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There are more centenarians per head of the population in Japan (80000) than anywhere else in the world. Japan holds its seniors in high regard. Since 1963, it has recognised September 15 as Respect for the Aged Day. The elderly are revered and placed on a pedestal with advice which is sought and appreciated. The family see it as a duty and an honour to deliver the best possible care for their frail elderly relatives. This may partly explain the longevity of Japanese people.

Of course many elderly people in this country are looked after in a devoted way by family members. However, there is also a feeling in some quarters that elderly relatives are a problem and a liability. Once elderly people feel they are a liability, then they start to lose the will to live. The greatest gifts we can give them are unconditional love and our time. My grandmother lived till she was almost 99 and I remember taping an interview with her during which she recounted memories as far back as the 1880s. I also had a patient aged 103 who was admitted for a pacemaker. He remembered riding a penny farthing bicycle and working at the post office before World War 1.

Do I have a vested interest in this topic? - I certainly do- we all do. I invite you all to listen to When You Are Old.

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