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Life Expectancy Has Stalled Thanks To Dementia - Which Is Bad Because..?

14/08/2017 12:44 BST | Updated 14/08/2017 12:44 BST

My 95-year-old nan is being expelled from her care home. She's only been there a few weeks. After a prolonged spell in hospital following another funny turn she was deemed unfit to live alone by social services and whisked up to Yorkshire, to a care home close to her two sons - my dad, 73, and my uncle, in his late sixties.

Two days before nan received her marching orders I made the 450-mile round trip to see her, along with my father. Nan's dementia had worsened considerably in the four weeks since my last visit - she kept muddling up her childhood home with the house she'd lived in for over 60 years, her repetitions were more marked and she insisted strangers were sleeping in her room.

A couple of days later my dad and uncle were called back and informed by the home that my nan would have to leave - her dementia was too marked for them to cope, she kept wandering into other rooms and into the basement, and legally they were unable to restrain her. We'd thought nan was finally safe, now we must start again, trawling EMI databases, checking CQC ratings - all the depressing TWAs to which so many are becoming familiar.

Nan's been there for me since I was born, she claims I saved her my first smile and I spent many happy childhood holidays with her and my granddad. Nan has always been "eccentric" - repetitive, prone to fantasies - she regaled me with tales about how she was descended from Russian Jews (we later discovered, to my disappointment, this was pure fantasy).

Nan has survived a heart attack, stroke, and even, aged 90, an operation to remove half of a lung that was riddled with cancer; but since granddad died three years ago, after 73 years of marriage, her mental health has deteriorated rapidly - several times she forgot he'd died, or thought he was living with one of us.

For the last year Nan has been virtually bed bound, visited by carers and meals on wheels and us, her descendants, when we are able. We are what's known as a "beanpole family" - few off-shoots - just nan, granddad, three kids, one grandchild (me) and my two children, carrying on the Piggott line - a privilege they have yet to fully appreciate. Dad lives in Yorkshire, my uncle in Manchester; both regularly make the round trip, an exhausting drive for a pensioner. The third sibling, my aunt, lives in Australia and makes regular trips home, once making the long flight three times in six months. Though I live down the road in London, I'm 50, with two kids and a job, so it was with a sense of relief I learned nan would be shipped up north as I wouldn't feel obliged to visit as often (shortly after, of course, comes the guilt).

The care home in Yorkshire charged £500 per week for a small toilet-less room, apparently average for that area. Nan and granddad were never rich - he a tool-maker, she in admin at Tesco - but being of that war generation, rarely took holidays and never went abroad, hardly drank and smoked lightly. They managed to buy their council house and put away savings, now being devoured. Not that I'm bitter; our family has money, why should the tax-payer pay for decades of care? Nevertheless, if nan is placed in a secure unit, it seems certain the house will have to be sold and this does grate a tad - why should someone work for all those years then see all their money disappear just because they have grown ill?

The figures don't add up when it comes to our ageing population. This was made clear when I spoke to my mum's father (remarkably, for a 50-year-old, I have two living grandparents). He chuckled, saying he'd now been retired longer that the 38 years he spent with British Rail as an assistant station master. So what's the politically palatable solution? Work longer, pay more in tax, stop spending the nation's hard-earned wealth on interest payments to private finance? Stop stigmatising smokers and drinkers, who put in far more into the system than they ever take out - and then die early into the bargain?

I have no idea: but it seems pointless to extend the quantity of life when unmatched by quality. Medical advances in physical health aren't matched by mental health advances, perhaps never will: after all, the human brain is the most complicated mechanism in the known universe. So, unless we get on top of the economics, the practicalities, the politics and the ethical dilemmas raised by our extended life-spans, the future will probably be old, cold - and poor.

Mark Piggott is an author and journalist