Hearing the tributes this week to Reg Dean, the gentleman who had been the UK’s oldest man until he passed away at the tender age of 110 years and 63 days, reminded me of the amazing stories behind the faces of every older person in villages, towns and cities across the UK and further afield.
Reg had been a church minister, serving as an army chaplain in Burma during World War II, was married 3 times, worked as a teacher, wrote short stories, founded the Dalesmen Male Voice Choir, took up painting at the age of 80 and was a vegetarian for more than 30 years. He lived through two World Wars and 24 British Prime Ministers, attributing his longevity to a mysterious medicine given to him by an Indian doctor and being, as he put it, “A member of the August fellowship known as ‘lazy bones’.”
The gentleman who succeeds him as the UK’s new oldest man is Ralph Tarrant, a great great granddad of over 109 years with an equally engrossing story and some great anecdotes. He still enjoys walking, and although he now needs a stick he is proud to claim that he can still “go like the clappers.” He lives independently, does his own shopping, enjoys cooking, and says he feels “really smashing” for his age.
Ralph’s advice on longevity is simple. He says there is “no need to live too carefully” and having enjoyed 79 years of marriage before his wife died aged 102, he claims that the key to a long and happy union is to “give each other hell every chance you get.”
Many people may look at Ralph, and Reg before him, and just see wrinkled faces, bodies not moving quite as quickly as they once did, and a person they perceive has no relevance to the ‘modern’ age, but my view is completely different. Just by researching their stories these men have proven to be enlightening, entertaining, and an example to us all of how to grow old gracefully.
Society is generally fearful of old age, perceiving it to be about increasing aches and pains, immobility, losing functioning and independence and ultimately ending up just waiting to die. These men prove that it doesn’t have to be like that, and whilst their longevity may be more aspirational than achievable for many people whose lifestyles or genetic makeup mean that they will never live for as long, or as healthily, as Reg and Ralph have been able to, I hope that their example helps to change the face of ageing into something more positive and desirable.
From an educational point of view, both men are also from a generation who worked for everything, saved before they spent, and endured great hardships during previous wars and recessions. Crucially, their generation also knew the value of things. They appreciated what they had and looked after what they were able to gain through their endeavours. They were never obsessed by celebrity, a ‘must-have’ culture or the temptations of excessive credit.
Thankfully Reg and Ralph have not only lived long and full lives, but have also been able to share their stories and maintain control over their day-to-day life, unlike the many people, often much younger, for whom health problems mean a very different experience as they age. Without the ability to speak up for themselves, defend their rights, fight for what they need and maintain their place within society, many older people are often ignored, mistreated or consigned to the scrapheap.
But consider this. Imagine if every wrinkle on an older person’s body represented a story to tell, an anecdote to recall, or a snipet of knowledge or advice that could change the course of a younger person’s life for the better? In our commercialised society, a ‘product’ capable of providing information of that magnitude AND entertaining the recipient would have a very high value indeed.
Yet so many older people don’t feel valued, and for everyone who might celebrate their existence, there will be others who feel that they are an unnecessary burden. I would argue, however, that we need to harness the wisdom, experience, knowledge and human spirit that lives within people like Ralph, and Reg before him.
By doing that not only do we celebrate their longevity and learn from their lives, we also help to change the image of their generation amongst the younger population. Men like Ralph provide the voices for their peers who through failing health cannot speak up as they once did, and by flying the flag for our older generations, these inspirational characters might just help to change the way ALL older people are viewed and treated.
Until next time…