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The best hope we have is to find an effective treatment for the illnesses and disabilities that come with age and find ways of preventing them.Yet it would be wrong to label our older people as a problem, as too many politicians do, to describe the ageing population as ‘a graph of doom’.One in every three babies born today will live to see their 100th birthday — an incredible statistic which can largely be put down to huge advances in medicine.But this increasingly ageing population will present enormous challenges for future generations.Years ago, when my feisty mother, Katherine, was still ploughing vigorously through her 90s, a hospital consultant who admired her vibrant will to live told me he’d cracked the code for living to a ripe old age.‘If you want to live to be 100, you need to be self-centred, dominant and strong-willed,’ he said.‘You mustn’t put other people first and you mustn’t be a victim.’My mother was never selfish, but it is true that she was a formidable woman, and we really thought she would make it to 100. She died at 94, but up to six weeks before she left us, she was still enjoying her life.George worked for the Inland Revenue as a tax officer — but his real passion was for painting landscapes, which he still does beautifully, despite his failing eyesight.On occasion, George would even enclose a little painting of a flower with a tax demand letter, to soften the blow.
Put simply, as a nation, we are not facing up to the challenge.Joan Bakewell, the presenter of the programme, talked to Margaret, who, at 102, was caring for her terminally ill son, Richard, before he died earlier this year aged 75.She said her one fear was that she would go first, leaving Richard vulnerable and alone.‘We’ll both go soon,’ she said, with a smile. I’ve got a lot more to do.’But perhaps those very challenges explain how Margaret has survived for longer than a century so triumphantly.As the documentary points out, there are 92,000 carers in this country who are themselves over 85.I have spoken to many very elderly carers who never question that it is their responsibility to look after a loved one, whether it is a partner or a son or daughter.