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5 March 2013

S4M-05765 “Demographic change and an ageing population”

The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick): The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-05765, in the name of Kenneth Gibson on behalf of the Finance Committee, on the committee’s report on “Demographic change and an ageing population”.

14:08
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15:41

Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

Willie Rennie talked about a crisis. I am that crisis. According to the table in paragraph 40 of the committee’s report, I have another seven years of healthy life expectancy, with nine years of total misery thereafter. I will be deid in 16 years and aff yer hands.

Sixteen years looks a good deal shorter than the life expectancy of any other member who is likely to speak in the debate—or at least any member who was here when I wrote my notes—but that life expectancy is somewhat higher than the mean and the median age at death for my ancestors, over four generations. That is the point. It is projected that I will outlive those who went before me in my family, which is typical of society as a whole.

There are exceptions, however. When my great-great-grandfather Archibald Stewart died in 1877, he was a few weeks short of his 100th birthday. That is quite encouraging, although he is wholly exceptional in our family. For his time, he was a stand-out person of substantial age.

The committee looked at the many challenges that are presented by the sharp upward trend in mean age in our society, which is being driven by our living longer and breeding less. The cabinet secretary talked about the positive impact of demographic change and in paragraph 8 the committee recognised the potential of the older part of our population to make a positive economic and social contribution. Third sector volunteers from the over-65s can bring enormous experience and knowledge to their age peers and to the young. I note that Age Scotland contributed to the committee’s inquiry. I will focus on the positive and suggest ways in which we can enable our older citizens to be fitter in body and in mind.

My great-great-grandfather Archibald Stewart was born in Stirlingshire and died in Ontario, Canada. He emigrated to Canada with his family in 1853, at the age of 75, and appears to have returned to Scotland on a number of occasions. It seems that the last time he came to Scotland he was in his 90s—still making what in the Victorian era was a substantial journey. Perhaps the lesson is that the more active we remain, the more we will remain active.

Let us think about what happens as we age. More of us will live as singletons as partners die, and social disconnect is one outcome of that. We know that the ability to acquire new friends diminishes with age, so simple things that help to maintain social contact are likely to help. Everyone will then benefit.

Appropriate physical activity is important. In the 1980s, I saw the winner of the over-40s marathon in Australia being interviewed on television. It was the 40th consecutive year in which he had won that marathon. He was over 90, and he was still beating people in their 40s. If we start fit and keep fit, we will be fit in our old age.

What could we support that might make a contribution? We might look at the contribution that the Ramblers can make, especially entry-level activity, such as urban rambling for the relatively unfit. Rambling contributes to physical wellbeing.

Cooking classes are simple and cheap, and they can deliver many benefits, especially when they are cross-generational.

I remember engaging on bingo licensing with Richard Simpson when he was a minister. Bingo is a great social activity for the old; it also significantly increases mental activity. I have seen old folk sitting with eight cards in front of them and marking them all off in a way that I would find utterly challenging. Bingo promotes social and mental wellbeing. Reading groups and creative writing groups also help mental health.

Perhaps there could even be engagement in political parties. In the Scottish National Party in my constituency, we have three leafleters who are in their 90s, and they are as fit as fleas. We have many youngsters, as well.

Those people do not only participate in our political debates; they do their share of the leafleting, which is absolutely great.

When my father was 65, he was a single-handed general practitioner. He had worked nights and weekends, but gave up working nights at 65. At 70, he gave up working weekends, and from the age of 70, he worked a 9 to 5 week—except that he went out at 7.30 in the morning and came back at 8.30 at night. He retired at 75 and, being active, remained fit. At the age of 75, he was still doing single-handed dinghy sailing, until mother bullied him into stopping that.

Let us talk about the positives of age and the recycling of experience and knowledge. Let us talk up the contributions that older people can make and create opportunities for those contributions to be made.

I gently disagree with Sandra White. We do not want a parliament for the old; we want the old to be in the Parliament. I am speaking entirely personally.

We want to ensure that we do not park our old people in a ghetto that is solely for the old. If the old are isolated from the rest of our community, that will cost us money and deny us the opportunity to learn from them.

I very much welcome all the contributions to this important debate. I have been fascinated by them, and I am sure that there are more such contributions to come.

15:48

Stewart Stevenson
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