Joanna Blythman: Too many older people are checking into a retirement colony of the mind

I have travelled by train between Edinburgh and London more or less monthly for the past two years.

Many people are amazed. They regard this as borderline foolhardiness. “Don’t you drive? What about the plane?” they ask.

And they are even more gobsmacked when I tell them that all, yes all my journeys have been in very new, hyper-civilised Hitachi trains with an almost Japanese level of cleanliness, that arrived on time, with the exception of one trip when we were 20 minutes late.

Their eyes widen further when I say that the fares, if booked in advance, are not unreasonable. And with the arrival of Lumo, the all-electric train operator that now competes with state-owned LNER, the tariffs are even keener, providing that you buy a railcard and can be flexible about times and days of the week.

I’ll admit that when Virgin ran the East Coast line, the service plummeted: hi-tech toilets that were out of commission 20 minutes into the journey, delays 50% of the time. The trademark Branson brand of traveller hell gets etched into the brain.

But Virgin was the exception. I have travelled this route regularly for decades, and all the other franchisees have made a reasonable job of it. It beats a knees-to-chin seat on easyJet any day. No airport shenanigans, no prolonged queuing on steps with your luggage, none of the security and Covid checks.

The train also trumps an expensive, 10-hour each way, fossil fuel-guzzling motorway trip hands-down. Sure, it costs more than the functional, tedious coach, but it’s much more relaxing.

By any measure you care to apply, the train on this route is now the most attractive transport option, yet an underlying antipathy to train travel is engrained in British society, and you don’t need to dig deep to tap into it. While other countries take pride in their railways, in the UK we suffer from a legacy of Thatcherite suspicion and contempt for public transport.

After the first lockdown, the Edinburgh-London trains were eerily quiet. You had whole carriages to yourself, which was weird, but it gave me an exhilarating thrill of adventure.

During that period it seemed to me that all the people who absolutely had to travel by train, but were scared to do so, had booked First Class to buy more space around them. The irony was that those coaches were usually busier than Standard Class, which defeated the cordon sanitaire motivation.

Otherwise, what do you get for your infinitely more expensive First Class ticket? A fabric headrest; a stream of horrible tea and coffee; complimentary food that isn’t a patch on a home-made picnic.

You pay a high price for snobbery in the UK, and the anticipated prestige-to-cost ratio often disappoints. First Class isn’t worth it.

Over the last six months, the trains have filled up, not overbooked or unpleasantly packed, just to a level where an unsubsidised train operator could feasibly make the service pay.

On my last journey I suddenly realised that we were the oldest people on the train. Thankfully a visibly aged couple boarded at Doncaster, which helped assuage my depressing sense of encroaching old age.

And come to think of it, that has been typical of the train’s demographic over the last two years. It’s as if most of the over-50s have withdrawn from normal life and checked themselves into a no-kids retirement colony of the mind, doubtless because we have been groomed to see the young as vectors of contagion.

Ever since I noticed this phenomenon, I have observed it everywhere. In restaurants, bars, theatres, cinemas, shopping centres, swimming pools, and other public venues, the clientele is visibly skewed to youth.

Here are two parallel realities. Inhabitants of the youth zone have a pragmatic, optimistic ‘let’s get on with life’ attitude. Those who choose the elder zone live in an increasingly disconnected world of anxiety where they dread contact with a waiter, care worker, school kid, delivery driver, yoga teacher, or postman. This voluntary narrowing of a full participative life feeds their isolating disconnection from wider society.

Is this what our world will look like going forward? Older generations who remove themselves from human contact as much as possible in the hope of extending their lives?

If so, it feels like a Mission Impossible.

Look at all the cruise ships forced to return to port following a Covid outbreak amongst fully vaccinated and tested crew and passengers. The travel agent’s promise of a sedate ‘safe’ voyage, designed to appeal to affluent, risk-averse tourists in the autumn and winter of their lives, is a chimera.

There’s no escaping risk at any age. The only certainty in life is death. The challenge is living our lives to the fullest, which is not the same thing as the longest.

This thinking is embedded in the concept of quality-adjusted life years (QALYs), which assesses the value of medical interventions for an individual’s quality and quantity of life.

Why not apply this thinking to lifestyle matters? The dilemma for older people is not just whether you should try those pills or have that operation, it’s also whether you should wrap yourself in cotton wool and eschew all non-essential interaction with the rest of humanity in your twilight years to postpone that inevitable date with the Grim Reaper.

Browsing through reports on the world’s centenarians, the common thread in their long lives would seem to be that they eschew anger and worry, surround themselves with loved ones, and smile a lot.

Could it be that a laid-back disposition is the best recipe for a long and content life on this earth?

Those not blessed with a sunny temperament can ponder other acronyms. FOGO, which once stood for Fear Of Growing Old, now doubles up as Fear of Going Out. And FOGO has to be weighed up against FOMO: Fear of Missing Out.

In the end, I guess, the life we choose to lead shows which of these fears scares us most.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.

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