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A better life: Old age, new thoughts

We're all growing older. But how often do we stop and reflect on what it means? What will be important to you when you are old - and will anyone be listening?

Date published:

Better life

by Sir Andrew Motion*

You think I must be asleep when you sit at my bedside and well might I be what with the late afternoon hush now the other residents have all retired to their rooms but no I am not asleep although you could say uncertain whether I am myself alone or the sum of those I remember whose voices have become mine along with their destination.

I can say this at least. I was born a Brixham girl and dad's ship was the pride of the fleet so every day when they came ashore I had my pick of the mackerel in their beautiful shiny blue suits. But then again I was stationed on the flying boats. Wasn't that a lovely time? The way they came in very low over the harbour and the deep green water lifted up to greet them or seemed to.

Ask yourself this question. Is it only when you become like me that you will hear what I have to tell you? Make your mind up.

Here's me when we were in Llandudno on our honeymoon. I painted my toenails red. If you cared to look you could see I still have my toenails red. I do this by myself with no help. And that's me dancing round the house – it was the fresh air kept me going, without a single brown penny in my purse.

You see what I am saying. I am living here among you and you pay no attention or decide what I am thinking which is not worth your attention. I am every single colour in the rainbow but you see no colour. You see the colour grey.

We have singing here at night or perhaps it has begun already. Can you hear them singing? You would not believe how old I am without feeling it. I tell myself that is because I have looked after everybody. When I go to the doctor now I find the door is closed. Do I knock? Once I'm inside it gets better. I say give me a minute.

I am Richard and I am perfectly able-bodied thank you and also of perfectly sound mind. What can I do for you? The chances are I know more than you about most things. I landed on Gold Beach on D-Day then worked as a brewer. It was a useful life. Defending the realm, than making beer. Now I am waiting for my telephone to ring. It never does ring.

If you were looking this way you would see my right hand stretching towards you with something I have to pass over. When I open my fingers you must look at the gift carefully. You may well not recognise it to start with although soon you will see it is the very thing you can never do without.

Who are we talking about? My name is Peter and in one way or another I was married to Steve for 57 years. Today I am alone. The pain is very strong because nobody would miss me if I died. It would affect nobody. I am Simon, aged 67. I am Liz, aged 82. I am Helen, aged 72 and I do tatting and keep fit on Wednesdays. I am Ali and I am a widow and I think if you don't do anything then God won't do anything. This is Mehmet. And this here Geti. I am Ron, and I enjoy a few boiled potatoes and a drop of broth. I am not a lover of sweet things. I like simple bread and butter and a bit of fish. My friend Rowena likes a slice of sponge cake.

Open the window and let me hear the geese flying across. Can you hear what I am saying? Are you paying attention? I love to hear the geese flying and know their ways home.

As for me, I was born in 1939 and all our people came down from Staffordshire and Cheshire; I class myself a Traveller not a Gypsy. When I was a boy we had a horse and wagon. I had to make a fire and put the horses out to graze at dawn then I had to bring them back close beside the wagon at dusk. When dad bought a bus, which we called a freezer box, he sold the horses. I stood and cried. I was a big lad. It was not the same.You couldn't smell the horses. Our people are in Magna Carta.

I had the life of Reilly. Now I have a serious illness and won't last but when I count my blessings at night I have a load of blessings. I love God and want to die. What better thing is there to live for?

Is that you leaving now? Very well. As for me I have not done. I am still the child that loves to arrive by night in a new place then wakes early to pull the curtains back on sunlight pouring into a bay I had never seen before where big pelts of seaweed left to dry by the retreating tide and the dainty orange crabs crawling across them and the pebbles are everything I need.

* Sir Andrew Motion's found poem is inspired by the stories and images of older people – including the centenarians in our gallery and some of the stories on this site.


Download - Poem (64.84 KB)

Aunt Annie's story


I know I can't live forever but I'd like to live a bit longer.

Aunt Annie

Gypsy elders are highly respected and well supported within families, although it is often unmarried daughters who take on the main caring role. Elders still play an important part in the family and they are never left alone too much, as family members, grandchildren and friends continually come to visit and offer a helping hand. Aunt Linda explains: "If a Traveller would not help an old person then they are not a real Traveller!"

Uncle Sam still has his two daughters at home: "Everything is done for me because now I am disabled. Being a Gypsy man for me is about freedom; it is going where we want to go and to have a choice to do what we want."

Illtyd's story

It's important that I'm free to leave a gay magazine on the side if I've brought it back from the pub.


Illtyd, now 80, has been actively involved in politics all his life. He enjoyed a 50-year partnership with Chris, a theatre critic and dresser to some of Britain's leading stage actors. Sadly, Chris died before they were able to make it legal with a civil partnership.

Illtyd highlights how important it is to be able to be yourself whether or not you need care: "Even though I wouldn't want to be shoving it in their face, they still need to know that this is my home".

Lawrence, another older gay man, says: "I would like to have choice about who would care for me and, if a care home, for it to be ‘gay friendly' and have at least some other gay men."

Pat's story

Everyone gets older .We celebrate getting older every year with our birthday.


Many older people with learning disabilities are caring for family members, spouses, partners and friends. Pat supports her partner Ray and also cared for her father - she is part of a national network of carers with a learning disability.

Michael also looked after his mum with dementia at home until she was 91. He says: "I'm proud to be a carer. It's the most important thing I've ever done."

Tony is 69 and lives with his mum, 91: "I try to help with the hoovering, cleaning and washing. Mum won't let me do the cooking, she's very independent. She's my mum and she looked after me and now I look after her. 50:50 I call it."

Kal and Sarbjit's story

The whole day is about mum.


Born in Wolverhampton, Kal raised her own family in Germany. She is sole carer for her mother Sarbjit who has dementia.

Kal had her mother's medication reviewed while they lived in Germany - it took five years to eliminate all the anti-psychotic drugs. Now back in Wolverhampton, Kal has created an environment where her mother is the centre of all the activities that take place. This includes gentle exercises to help her stay mobile and give her a sense of purpose. Sarbjit has also used homeopathic practitioners.

Living with dementia has meant the loss of support from family and the wider community. There is a sense of isolation from activities and places that were considered to be normal.

Chanan's story

I believe I am alive because I have helped people.


Chanan came to the UK in the late 1960s, never intending to stay permanently. He has been involved in politics from an early age and was an active union member. He had his first heart attack in 1978, and now has a number of illnesses and cannot walk unaided. He lives with his wife, Joginder, son, daughter-in-law and two young grandchildren.

Chanan is very passionate about the loss of services, in particular the loss of culturally appropriate services. For him, "good family support has been my saviour. I wouldn't be here without them."

He also believes that it is vital to always give back to others. Even as he was recovering from his stroke he felt it was his duty to assist others who were less fortunate than himself.

Pal's story

Always keep your heart full.


Pal came to the UK in the late 1960s - his wife and children joined him in the early 1970s. He has been a widower for 28 years. For Pal, living alone means that his physical security is paramount. His son and grandson visit him on a daily basis and have installed a security system.

Pal is adamant that a positive mental attitude can make a significant impact on a person's ability to cope with illness: "When it comes to life, health or anything else, people find lies are sweet and the truth is bitter … Never get depressed, I don't focus on what I don't have. Always keep your heart full. I have fallen on my face many times in life but I had to get up. You cannot spend your life eating dirt."

John's story

People need to listen to us. We know about things.


John lives in a group home with three younger men, but when he reached 65 he was 'retired' from the day centre he had been attending for many years.

The minibus still collects the other men each morning. The staff say: "He gets very angry and upset and we don’t know how to explain it to him in a way that will make sense."

Despite the barriers older people with learning disabilities experience, Pat, also from the GOLD group, says: "Getting old is not all bad. Some people are enjoying new things ... Sylvia cleans offices. John volunteers for the Salvation Army. Roger calls the bingo numbers at bingo. Tim is chairman of People First."

Maggie and Sylvia's story

Sharing, laughing together, making a fuss of her.


Sylvia, 69, and Maggie, 72, both came from Catholic families and both have been married and had children. They discovered their lesbianism in the late 1970s and have been together for over 30 years. Sylvia is very musical and Maggie writes and paints. They attend various creative groups and remain active in their local community.

They had a difficult experience of trying to live in sheltered housing where they were badly bullied. Maggie says: “I think one of the big issues is to encourage and enable people who have anxieties and fears to come out with it and say what it is. What it is you are so afraid of, what terrifies you so much?”

James's story

I can speak for others with dementia who cannot speak for themselves.


James was diagnosed with vascular dementia in 1999. He says: "Since then I have been very active in establishing the Scottish Dementia Working Group (SDWG), was Chair for the first six years and am currently Vice Chair. I am a member of the Alzheimer Scotland Council and their International Committee. I am interested in tackling stigma associated with dementia as well as advocacy, ethics and training professionals."

James says: "I have met so many lovely people with dementia and have built up a great circle of acquaintances ... I know if I am not feeling well I just need to say and people will be phoning up to check I'm okay."

Agnes's story

You can be a pioneer.


Who would imagine that someone with dementia could see this diagnosis as having a positive impact on their life?

Agnes was diagnosed with Alzheimer's about five years ago, and is now Chairperson of the Scottish Dementia Working Group (SDWG) and a member of the Alzheimer Scotland Council.

Agnes says: "I believe that the SDWG has helped me to live a more full and happy life with my diagnosis of dementia. I have represented the group at international, European and national conferences…I have decided I will speak out about dementia, not hide it away. I believe I have a duty to let the public know that a diagnosis of dementia is not the end, but the beginning of a new life."

Rose's story

The camaraderie ... gives you a real lift.


Rose belongs to a group in Hamilton. She says: "I come along to see what people with the same illness, what is going on with them."

Edward finds that being part of a group, "reinforces my own conviction that it's an illness you can challenge and you can beat ... you've still got the condition but you find a new road and you establish a new life".

For Robert, "all these lovely people have a common denominator and it is the greatest pleasing thing if I can help somebody else. It gives you a great feeling from the heart; sometimes I get quite emotional about it, to draw somebody out that doesn't want to talk and all of a sudden they start, that is the therapy of being involved in a group."

Aunt Mary's story

Family is always around to give you help if you need it.

Aunt Mary

Gypsies have always had to be enterprising and adapt to the changing world around them.

Aunt Mary says: "When I was young, after the war, we made paper flowers and we would sell them around the pit houses. Sometimes the miners' wives would invite us in and offer us a bit of dinner but you could not go around knocking on doors now."

Still living in a trailer, Aunt Mary reflects: "You look out the window, go to the gate and see lots of kids playing and my daughter and granddaughter are nearby. Family is always around to give you help if you need it, we don't have much from outside but we look after ourselves."

What's it like to be 100?

This gallery offers a glimpse into the lives of centenarians. The portraits do not glorify: they tell us about things that give people pleasure and peace, but also about the challenges they face. The centenarians all have something unique to say about themselves, and ultimately about the question many don't want to ask: "what does it feel like to be very old?".

The gallery is based on Chris Steele-Perkins's work.


Why think about getting older?

Old age isn't about 'them', it's about all of us.

We're all heading in that direction - the number of people over 85 in the UK will double in the next 20 years. More of us than ever are reaching old age and those who do face new challenges. But we rarely hear about this stage of life from the real experts.

This site gives older people's voices a platform. We hope to highlight their experiences, resilience and ability to flourish across a century of huge change. And we want to find out what they can teach us about mutual support and positive thinking.

Who are the experts?

We commissioned papers from diverse groups of older people, many with high support needs. Each group explored what growing older really means. Their personal stories inspired our poem, by Sir Andrew Motion.

Alongside these stories, a team from The Open University investigated what older people want and value.

We also supported a photographic project by Chris Steele-Perkins, providing a glimpse into what it's like to be a centenarian.

What's important?

Whatever our age and however much support we need, we can all live meaningful lives based on strong personal relationships. We can all go on giving as well as taking. Right up until the end of our lives, both our present selves and our histories are worth understanding and celebrating.