The last of the ‘Victorians’
News this morning that the oldest person in the world, Susannah Mushatt Jones, has died aged 116. The mantle now passes to Emma Morano, who’s not only the oldest person currently alive but also the last known person to have been born in the 1800s. And that started off an interesting, if disturbing chain of thought.
The thought of the oldest living human being about to switch from 1899 to a ‘baseline’ of 1900 reminded me of the way I’d viewed the elderly when I was in my teens. That too involved a baseline idea as what I’d once seen as a line between frail and robust.
It was the autumn of 1985 and I’d started at Sixth Form. For half a day of the school timetable we were ‘strongly encouraged’ to do community service. ‘It’ll help you with your UCCA applications’ said the Sixth Form Head.
I chose to help out at a lunchtime club for the elderly every Wednesday morning. It was run by the Local Authority at a day centre about halfway between where I lived and the school. After two to three weeks of helping out, my juvenile mind drew this, maybe arbitrary dividing line between those who could still cope with old age and what 16-year old me would call the ‘decrepit’, be it physically and/or cognitively. The line seemed to fall rather neatly at 1900/1899.
Of the old people at the day centre, the youngest, born in 1912, though somewhat overweight, was spritely; but those born before the mid-1890s really did have difficulty in coping – whether it was in eating or playing the after-lunch games of bingo. Here they were either too slow to mark their numbers or simply couldn’t hear the numbers being called out. They were I suppose, the last Victorians, which I thought a novelty as the last Victorian in our family, my grandma’s eldest sister had died about three years before.
But counting on the years this morning, on the death of Susannah Mushatt Jones got me realising that we’re now 30 years on from the school year when I did that community service. The baseline, without me realising it, had ambled on some 30+ years too, to 1930 – the year my dad was born. Would I now see my own father in such terms?
True, our conception of what constitutes old age is slowly creeping upwards with each generation as life expectancy increases.
Time has marched on, my baseline falling along the way (as did the UCCA which to today’s UCAS applicants must sound like a throwback to the age of ‘O’ levels and log tables). And one day, my birth year, 1968 will be the new 1899 or 1930. Perhaps I can revisit this quirky subject again when it applies to me in 2054.