Edwina Talks About Her Inner Age And The Big Society

Ignore us at your peril

Mae West had a robust attitude to ageing: ‘You only live once,’ she’d murmur while making movies in her 80’s patting her platinum wig and batting her lashes, ‘but if you do it right, once is enough’.

We can’t all be Mae West, but like her, most older people don’t accept the epithet ‘old’ with its numerous negative connotations. Every time I’m told, for example, that one-fifth of people over 80 are likely to suffer from memory loss, I retaliate with the four fifths who won’t. Half a million people are in residential care; that leaves more than 10 million of us who aren’t. Of course, in life’s lottery we will all need help eventually. But, for the time being, me and many like me are determined to make every day count.

I’ve always felt 36

Recently, I joined McCarthy Stone’s Greater Life Advisory Board; at 65 I’m one of the younger members. We were asked what age we felt inside. Seventeen and 20 were the commonest answers, though for me it was 36. I’ve always felt 36, even as a teenager; the serious profession of politics appealing to my youthful gravitas. But I bet our attitude is far more common than policy-makers and opinion-formers realise.

Let’s skate over John Betjeman’s remark that the only thing he regretted as he aged was that he hadn’t had more sex, or my personal resolve to embarrass my children and enjoy growing old disgracefully. The huge increase in the numbers of retired citizens is, for most of us, not a story of regret and decline but of a new agenda and a new lease of life.

"The huge increase in the numbers of retired citizens is, for most of us, not a story of regret and decline but of a new agenda and a new lease of life."

And here’s the rub. Governments may wrestle with the economics of the Health Service and the care system, but they pay too little attention to the great resource that lies hidden in older generations; even when it comes to elections, it’s as if that ‘grey vote’ is invisible. That makes me despair. Such a range of experience and good will is available – seniors who know you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Here is the ‘bank of grey cells’; here are the ‘silver servers’. Will no one acknowledge their value and help them realise their potential?

There isn’t a political party in the country that could perform without the twinset-and-pearls brigade stuffing envelopes, organising coffee mornings and committee rooms (indeed, filling the House of Lords – for the moment); not a parish or district council that could function without it’s long serving older members; not a charity shop, or Women’s Institute, or British Legion, or bowling club that would survive without pensioners determined to do their bit whilst enjoying themselves.

"The Big Society idea wasn’t new to us, but we watch with astonishment as spiky-haired youths on TV debate its plausibility. ‘Ask your granny,’ I hiss at the screen, except she’s probably too busy."

This attitude propelled me into unexpected waters last year. I was part of a delegation that went to harangue the new head of BBC1, 37-year-old Danny Cohen, on the unacceptable invisibility of millions of older citizens, despite being the bulk of the BBC’s viewers. He agreed; the average age of the channel’s audience was over 50, and they were complaining at the rush for youth that characterised such favourite programmes as Strictly Come Dancing.

A month later, the new series including four contestants aged 60 or over: Russell Grant, Anita Dobson, Lulu and me. I was hoist with my own petard, but there are better ways of proving our vigour! Read all about the our GLAB members in the blog article - Introducing the Greater Life Advisory Board.