Live to be 100?
I really do not want to live to be a 100. Nor, I suspect, does the famous British journalist, Jon Snow.
But as he enters retirement after decades of being at the top of his profession as an investigative journalist and anchor of Channel 4’s flagship news programme, he is interested in living well. Maybe particularly so since at 75 he has a young family from his second marriage.
Recently, we watched his new two-part documentary on the theme of living into a healthy and productive retirement. He talked about the business of adjusting from an adrenaline-fuelled profession to life in the slow lane. And so he decided to explore three communities in the world where people live extraordinarily long and fulfilled lives.
The first place he visited was the Greek island of Ikaria. Snow was curious about the secret of their longevity. First, they eat well. Many islanders cultivate their own fruit and veg, make their own olive oil. They work up an appetite and then satisfy it with vegetarian food which they have just picked from their plot. All washed down with a little organic wine produced on the island. They are a close-knit community. They look out for each other. They swap produce. And they dance at the many community events. And the weather and the island setting make for an idyllic place to live.
Snow then moved on to a quite different community on the other side of the world of special interest to us because we worked there briefly in the early 1990s - Loma Linda in southern California. Its population is largely made up of Seventh-day Adventist Christians. The community clusters around a huge modern hospital and prestigious medical school which attracts students from all over the globe. What is the secret of longevity in this community? Many residents are life-long vegetarians. No booze. No smoking or drugs. The supermarket is well stocked with fresh produce and non-meat options. Even the nonagenarians are serious about going to exercise classes. They do a lot of voluntary work. Underlying everything is a faith rooted in the goodness of God. They believe their lives have meaning. Snow, son of an Anglican bishop and a self-proclaimed sceptic about these non-conformists, was clearly impressed.
Then he was off again to the other side of the world. To a small town in the hill country in Japan. What made them so long-living and obviously happy? A well-organised programme of further education for the elderly. Finding voluntary work well into official retirement. Regular exercise like Tai-chi and various forms of yoga. A simple diet. They laughed a lot. A quiet Buddhist underpinning. ‘Retirement’ was not a well-recognised concept.
Snow was obviously impressed with all three communities. And it was not difficult to see a pattern emerging. Diet. Exercise. Community. A sense of purpose whether from religious belief or not. Active retirement not focused on mere self-satisfaction. And there was another thread too. The sense that those beyond retirement age were taken seriously and respected by younger generations.
How was Snow to incorporate what he had learned in crowded, fast-moving, individualistic, competitive, polluted southern England where he lives? It is one of the questions he faces as he begins his new 'lower-profile' life.
And it’s a question for everyone - even younger generations. In the 2021 census, nearly 20% of the UK population (11 million people) was over 65. And the percentage is rising. The British government is not getting to grips with the issue. Living well in old age is a community project. And each of us has the responsibility to weave the threads of small local communities into a social fabric which will keep us all warm. Governments, even good ones, are not equipped to do that.
Eat, work, dance - and care about something or someone beyond yourself. That seems to be the simple formula for a life in old age - whether or not we want to live be 100. Look for the places where lives are being lived well in our local communities. Maybe, in this case, it takes more than two to tango!