It began in the August issue when columnist Wilfred De’Ath reported on his stay on a ward for people with later-stage dementia (it was apparently the only bed available at the mental health facility Fulbourn Hospital, to which De’Ath was admitted for suicidal depression and diabetes).
De’Ath described an awful experience in which one woman walked up and down screaming while another, who ‘stank of excrement’, attempted to get into his room and another hit him. The other patients ‘were in a comatose state’. Dementia, he concluded, is a terrible condition and extreme dementia ‘is almost too terrible to describe’.
It was what he wrote next that was shocking. Adolf Hitler, said De’Ath, ‘would have had these people put down, of course. I am not sure he wasn’t right’.
It is hard to imagine a statement more likely to offend. De’Ath is actively considering whether we should murder people who have lost mental capacity.
Unsurprisingly, some Oldie readers responded strongly (though the magazine chose to print their letters in the middle of its letters page and made no comment on them). Geo Hubbard, whose wife had Alzheimer’s, wrote: ‘One gets used to William De’Ath’s crude exaggerations and contrived efforts to be controversial but even by his own base standards [the article] went beyond the limits of common decency.’ Another wondered whether the article was ‘some elaborate fiction’. If not, it thought that the Oldie was using ‘the final struggles of a sick old man [De’Ath] as cheap entertainment’ and was failing in its duty of care. ‘Shame on you,’ it concluded.
Surely both are right. The most generous explanation for both the Paxman remarks and the (far more chilling) comments by De’Ath is that both have their roots in fear of older age and what may happen during it. Paxman, who is 66, considered the vision of later life illustrated by advertisements in Mature Times and verbally shuddered. De’Ath saw circumstances that some older people will encounter and could not face it.
Yet such extreme fear is not a reasoned response to older age. While some will experience the worst that old age can throw at us, most will not. At the age of 85, around nine in ten of us will still be living independently and three quarters of us reporting our heath as good or better than people of the same age.
We are also at least as likely as at any stage in our lives to be happy. Just as Paxman was railing against the potential indignities of old age, the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry was reporting that older age is associated with higher levels of satisfaction, happiness and wellbeing, and lower levels of depression, anxiety and stress. The older you are, it found, the happier you are likely to be.
Those who approach old age with the terror of Paxman and De’Ath are perhaps more to be pitied than blamed.