Celebrating Senior Citizens' Day

23/08/2016 13:48 | Updated 23 August 2016

Saturday was "Senior Citizens' Day". If it is possible to create "a day", this one owes its genesis to President Ronald Regan whom, it may be remembered, was elected President of the USA a few days short of 70, leaving office at the age of 77.

Whatever we thought of his policies (personally I was never a fan) Regan exemplified the resilience of the older worker rather well, putting his soft skills and wide experience of working with people to what was widely seen as great effect.

Thirty six years later and Hilary Clinton will be about the same age, if she is elected to the Presidency in November. Senior Citizens rule OK! it seems, when it comes to Presidential office.

But of course Senior Citizens' Day is not just about Presidents, rather it is aimed at recognising the contribution of all people over a "certain age" - whatever that may be. Actually, "senior" is a rather slippery concept anyway as our ideas of what it is to be old are changing.

People seem to keep their looks and mobility a bit longer now - well I hope so! People of all sorts of ages are doing incredible things from climbing Everest to swimming the channel. In Shaw Trust we are aiming to do more to support the older job seeker and it is always great to hear from people who exemplify the possibilities of activity in later life.

Age does not need to be a barrier even in the most unlikely conditions. Among the smooth limbed young athletes showing their prowess in the Olympic Games in Rio, 58 year old British show jumper Nick Skelton won a gold medal this weekend. Neither a past broken neck, double knee operations nor a hip replacement proved any greater barriers than the six feet high fences he cleared on his horse Big Star.

Older athletes in the Olympics include Great Britain's Jo Pavey aged 42, another Brit, Katherine Grainger, aged 40, who shared a silver medal in the rowing, and Mary Hanna, an equestrian from Australia at the age of 61 won nothing but the honour of taking part.

For all of them, competing at the highest levels was an achievement in itself, a great story to tell their grandchildren and, one would imagine, could delay their ageing markedly.

Incidentally, the oldest ever male Olympic medallist, a Swedish rifle shooter called Oscar Swahn, won a silver medal in 1920 when he was well over 72 years old. (He won six medals in all, in a shooting sport called "running deer," from 1908 to 1920. Never mind golf, bring back running deer!)

Such reflections lead me to propose that we raise the age barriers in the Olympics by putting on Veterans events at the same time as the normal games, or maybe in parallel with the Para-Olympics. What would you give to see Usain Bolt running the 100 metres in his seventies? It would be amazing! Moreover, what an incentive it would provide to us all to look after ourselves.

Back to Senior Citizens' Day however. No matter how generously it is bestowed, the title of "senior citizen" can never restore the dignity lost by many people in advanced years with poor pensions, negligible savings and little ability to influence their surroundings. Failings in public policy can mean that older people are less able to participate actively in society and suffer dreadfully in the social care system.

The dice falls unevenly and the inequalities in society could hardly be more vividly expressed than in the health and dignity of older people in later life. Not all the years of extra life we are enjoying will be in good health.

I see this in my own neighbour of the past thirty five years, who now has dementia - a fate which is increasingly common. She shuffles aimlessly outside her back gate, lost within a few metres of her own home, failing to recognise it as the place where her children grew up. Yet she is only a year or so older than me.

While she lives in a fog of confusion I turn out for work every day. Is there a connection, I wonder? She might be called a "senior citizen" but "citizenship" seems absent in the sense of her rights and dignity. Of all the rights we acknowledge in a civilised society, our efforts to prevent mental illness, do not seem up there with the others.

What, I wonder, has brought about this sadly magnified inequality between our senior citizens? I can't of course be sure, but my neighbour's decline owes much to the emptiness of her retirement. There were no grandchildren nearby, no going to the gym or Nordic walking, the smart car remained unused - no trips out. The job she seemed to like was suddenly and abruptly ended.

It was as though she really couldn't cope with the grief of retirement and simply shrank into herself. There are many other factors which must be taken into account of course, but her isolation from the working world and abrupt decent into loneliness, must surely account for much.

So if we do want honour our senior citizens on this Senior Citizens' Day, surely we should mark their achievements on one hand and survey the mountain we must climb on the other. For a genuinely active aging society we need to take both seriously.

We can't so very easily end the solitude and loneliness which many older people suffer from, but we can encourage them to use their talents, remain active and stay healthy. Our celebrations should be seasoned with resolution to achieve this.