Peter Richardson.
Peter Richardson.

How long is too long to subsidise old age?

THE world's largest land animal is under threat from habitat loss and the ghastly ivory trade, but thanks to wildlife documentaries, we are seeing more of elephants, and of their private lives, than ever before.

You may be surprised, though, to know that I actually own an elephant. He is a little different from the giants of Africa and Asia, 'little' being he operative word. He has no formal name ... just "the red elephant", and his habitat is the top of my fridge.

From this commanding vantage point he has watched over the kitchen of every house I have lived in since 1953. Yes, 60 years, comparable with the average life span of elephants in the wild. Not bad, seeing that he has had more than a few life-threatening falls. The worst resulted in the loss of a leg, but I managed to fashion a wooden one for him.

His main duty is to stand guard over scribbled reminders for myself and for visitors, but keeping in mind the fabled elephantine memory, I often consult him as a last resort when I have misplaced some small item or forgotten a name, and sometimes it even works.

So much for the ceramic elephant in my room. Now for the metaphoric one that media commentators and other assorted gurus use to draw attention to a looming issue they see as blindingly obvious only to themselves.

One such issue raises the question: For how long, at what cost and to what purpose can or should taxpayers contribute to keeping people alive into extreme old age, just because it will be possible?

Quantity of life or quality of life? What are the respective benefits to individuals and to society, and in what proportion should resources be applied to foster them?

With one major reservation, I would be happy to live well past the century mark. The reservation is that I would want to still be savouring life, albeit with limitations, but with a reasonable degree of contentment ... and crucially, an awareness of that contentment.

A hundredth birthday, although notable, is hardly headline material now in our society, and stunning advances in research and technology are significantly lengthening the human life span, so how will society deal with extreme prolongation of life, and for what purpose?

We are often warned that ageing Australians will increasingly have to fork out for a bigger share of their health care costs, whether from their superannuation, through private health insurance or eating into their savings - if they have any, that is.

As the percentage of the population in employment shrinks, tax revenue from the workforce will become less and less sufficient to cater for the perceived needs of the rapidly ageing population, so will we, at a pre-determined age, have to show cause why keeping us alive should be subsidised a government expense?

Three years have now passed since I first posed these questions. As for the answers, maybe I should ask my red elephant.

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