In the last census in 2021 there were 13,924 centenarians living in England and Wales and the number is increasing as lives continue to lengthen. And they tend to be clustered in the U.K.’s ‘blue zones’, especially places near the coast. ‘Blue Zones’ is a term given to regions with healthy, and long living populations, such as Loma Linda in California and Okinawa, in Japan. But England’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty warns that these ‘often beautiful and welcoming’ areas are underserved in healthcare, have less accessible transport links and insufficient infrastructure for older adults, including housing. In addition, our experience shows that when they move away from their urban area to a blue zone, older people leave behind their adult children and other relatives, making it harder for them to visit and provide support when they become frailer.
Family is increasingly important as you grow older. An article in the Telegraph in September described super centenarian Ethel Caterham. ‘At 114 she is the oldest living person in the UK in the last surviving person from the 1900s. She married and had two children but has now outlived them all. She drove until the age of 97, was a regular bridge player and contracted Covid during the pandemic but successfully recovered.’ She summed up her formula for a long and happy life as ‘family is the most important thing in life. To be able to leave memories with your children and grandchildren. Possessions don’t matter a bit, in the end. All you need is someone to look after you.’
But ‘someone to look after you’ is becoming increasingly difficult in the ‘blue zones’, as they are areas where the proportion of working-age people able to provide care is often reducing. God’s intention is that children will look after their parents in their old age. I remember a conversation with a son whose parents were talking about moving away from the area they’d lived for years to the coast some 120 miles away. ‘I can see the attraction,’ he said, ‘but they’ve no friends or relatives there. What happens when they need help and care?’
A few days before the publication of the report the National Audit Office announced that £1 billion had been taken from Boris Johnson’s flagship plan for social care, and now only £729 million will now be spent on much-needed reforms. Astonishingly, £171 million was returned to the Treasury due to delays. £172 million will be spent speeding up the process of discharging older patients from hospital into nursing homes, though how this can be done with the fragile state of the care sector is a mystery.
Professor Whitty’s ‘biggest concern’ is that government and professional bodies have not recognised the concentration of older people in these areas. ‘They must start planning more systematically on the basis of where the population will age in the future, rather than where demand was 10 years ago,’ he said. ‘This includes building or adapting housing and transport to be appropriate for an older population.’
Yet a few weeks earlier the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities handed back to the Treasury £1.9 bn that was intended to improve housing in England, because of ‘a lack of suitable projects.’
Prof Whitby’s report is encouraging because it recognises the needs of older people and warmly recommends steps to meet them. But it leaves the reader with the impression that government is not joined up, that essential departments are operating in individual silos. Monies that should be available for his sensible recommendations have already been taken from under his feet.
The ‘takeaway’ for me is that even though you can afford it, the wisest decision may be not to retire into to a ‘blue zone’.
Also, thinking about the emphasis on the quality of life rather than its length … rings little alarm bells in my mind; it resonates with the Liverpool Care Pathway still. The side effects of some treatment can be life-threatening in themselves, but we don’t want to see a side door to assisted suicide opening in a back wall here. We can feel helpless in situations that we can’t affect personally and a bit like giving up, like the psalmist who wrote that he did not concern himself with great matters or things too wonderful for him, (Psalm 131:1). Yet nothing is too difficult for God: and prayer changes things.
More from Pilgrims' Friend Society
Dr Anna Dixon MBE shares the recommendations of the Reimagining Social Care Commission's report
Those who remember Victor Meldrew will recall his tagline, ‘I don’t believe it!’ And he certainly showed an openness to new experience.
A booklet sharing valuable advice on how to care for the emotional, practical and spiritual needs of a parent based on professional expertise and personal experience.