Friday, December 19, 2008

Africa News Today (AN/Today): Britain's oldest newlyweds: life begins at 80 About 400 people in their eighties get married each year in Britain. We meet John Dawkins, 89, and Penny Cooper, 90, who wed just three weeks ago

Britain's oldest newlyweds: life begins at 80

About 400 people in their eighties get married each year in Britain. We meet John Dawkins, 89, and Penny Cooper, 90, who wed just three weeks ago

John Dawkins & Penny Cooper from Exmouth, who are the UK'S oldest married couple.

It's not as though they had to get married. She is 90 and lives in a pleasant nursing home in Exmouth, he is 89 and visits every day. But three weeks ago Penny Cooper and John Dawkins made the trip to Honiton register office in John's car with the ramp for Penny's wheelchair, the local paper turned up and suddenly they found themselves fêted as Britain's oldest newlyweds.

"We were always together, I suppose," Penny says. "We were very close and obviously labelled right from the start."

It was her idea, I remind Penny, nudging for more explanation. John replies, looking at his wife: "You asked if you could become Mrs Dawkins and I was delighted to say yes." He turns to me. "I think Penny didn't honestly believe I would stay with her, that I would always be there, which obviously I would be. You ladies are more emotional than us terrible men, aren't you? So it means a lot to me but I think it means even more to Penny. That's why we did it."

It is generous of Penny and John to agree to meet me and I'm immediately surprised at how open they are. Perhaps I shouldn't be, perhaps my expectation of reserve is part of the way that younger generations stereotype oldies to distinguish ourselves from them. And perhaps we are wrong to do so.

About 400 people aged 80 and over marry each year in the UK - more men than women, as men tend to marry younger women. The number of over-85s has more than doubled to 1.1 million in the past 25 years and is expected to double again by 2032, says the Office for National Statistics. But increasingly elderly people face later life alone, says Help the Aged, which raises the issue of who will provide the care that they are likely to need. This point is relevant to Penny and John because, as they readily admit, while their marriage is based on love and friendship, it is also a contract to care for each other.

They met nine years ago at a charity event on the South Devon coast, were intrigued by each other, and John gave Penny his phone number and an invitation to contact him should she ever have a problem. That, he concedes, was 49 per cent of the reason. The rest was that she is an attractive woman and following John's two marriages - one had ended after 46 years with the death of his wife, a second ended in divorce - he was looking for a companion with whom to share meals and walks and trips to the theatre. Penny, recently widowed, was quiet, John remembers. "Her husband was the light of her life, there's no doubt about that."

But what delighted him most was that Penny, like his late wife, was a former Wren, and this matters a lot to a former Royal Navy lieutenant-commander who is proud to have served with Lord Mountbatten during the Second World War.

Penny and John had an Italian meal together, she didn't want a pudding but he charmed her by ordering two spoons for his. They became friends and went on cruises, confident that they were old enough to spend what time they had left. When Penny had a series of falls, probably caused by the miniature strokes known as transient ischaemic attacks, John cared for her, first in her own home, and later in his. After a major stroke 18 months ago she moved to a nursing home.

John, spruce and precise, is very good at providing this kind of detail. Penny talks more in shades of grey, as women often do. Falling in love at her age is not entirely the same as when she was younger, she explains.

"Not quite. You're very conscious of being at that age and you make a mockery of it. I was quite young in my mind, I'd had a divorce before [her first marriage, when she was 21, was short-lived] and I didn't feel I could cope with all this. It's a very strong feeling, you recognise it from your own experience because you're concentrating on someone else. You don't want to. At your age you don't want to believe that you can feel like that again, to feel pent-up on that person. It's not a comfortable experience at all."

Penny is a strikingly pretty woman who smiles a lot. Her stroke has disrupted her speech and I wish I could have met her when she was fully fluent, because she has a beguiling intelligence, and the more she says, the more you want to hear, but sometimes the thoughts get stuck.

The word to describe John is vigorous. Where Penny's energy comes through her keen eyes, his fizzes through his lean frame. If Penny is primarily a thinker, John is a doer - it is no coincidence that his first job was with the Boy Scouts Association - and it's easy to see that this late relationship gives him a sense of purpose that his life might not otherwise have.

"If you're going to go back to an earlier age, it was more romantic then, more physical," he says. "At our age you're probably looking for companionship to begin with. From that it grows into something else, which I accept straight away.

"We talked about marriage, which seemed semi-foolish, but now I think we both need somebody to be dependent upon. At our age we must accept the arithmetic and, with apologies to Penny, I hope that she will die before me because I think she would be more lonely. I have an easier capacity to meet with this sort of thing. If it's preferable that Penny goes first, to my mind that emphasises the reason we're together. At this age one has to give not only emotional thoughts about it but practical, everyday thoughts."

These include money. Penny's nursing fees are £740 a week, to which the Government contributes £101. John has made arrangements to ensure that Penny's fees will be met by him if necessary. "The current financial crisis is of concern to us because it affects our income," he says. "If I've got these thoughts it must follow that they're in Penny's head, and I give her great credit because she never bundles it out. I've only seen her get close to crying once despite lots of stresses."

A basket of flowers in Penny's room is a gift from Unilever, John's former employer - he was a sales manager and involved with the launch of fishfingers 50 years ago. His two children and two of Penny's three children attended their wedding. Penny has been a civil servant, a primary school teacher, and an author. John shows me a copy of her memoir, 29 Inman Road, published in 1990, and later, when I track down a former-library copy via the internet, the book confirms my impression of Penny's sharp and independent mind.

She was born Ena Chamberlain - she has no idea why she is known as Penny - in Earlsfield, southwest London. Her father ran a laundry and she was the youngest of four children, the afterthought born when her mother was in her forties and thought she was "safe". Ena was a bookish and imaginative child (not a compliment in the early 1920s), top of the class in most lessons except arithmetic and dreamt of being a writer, observing everything that went on around her and noting it with lyrical acuity. She won a scholarship to Christ's Hospital School, and longed to go, she tells me, but failed the medical (she had had TB as a small child) and went to the local grammar school instead.

Her childhood came to an abrupt end when she was 10 and her father died. Coincidentally, John was 11 when his mother took her own life, and was brought up by his sister; their father was a detective sergeant in the Metropolitan Police.

Not that Penny or John dwell on the negatives of the past. They are more inclined to relish what they have now and concede that without each other, without the days spent together at the nursing home and the trips out in John's car, they would be lonely. "Very much so," Penny says.

"I'd be looking in upon myself instead of looking out on Penny," John says. "One went into the idea of marriage because we thought it would be better for both of us, stabilise us both a little bit. Then it produces the realisation of what we can't do now that we would have done then. We would have gone off on a cruise, we will not be adding to the family.

"I suppose this is one example where marriage doesn't have much chance of making any difference, but I consider myself extremely lucky. The thing about you ladies is that you give more to men than we give to you. Without Penny I would definitely be this grumpy old man and I'm aware that I'm an important part in Penny's life.

"The only deep regret is Penny's stroke. But it's reasonable to say that it's brought us so much closer, not only emotionally but by force of circumstances.

"I come in here every day. The difference is that I'm leaving to go back to normality. Penny's not. It's an emotional parting for us every night that makes the next day an even better day again, however illogical that might seem."

Who cares?

As the number of over-85s increases year by year, the pressing question of who will care for them has so far been unanswered by the State. At present between five and six million people in the UK are unpaid carers for a friend or relative. If residential care is the alternative, this saves an average £25,000 a person a year, which would be paid privately or come from the public purse, depending on the individual's circumstances.

Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that increasing numbers of over-85s live alone - almost half of men and 69 per cent of women. Surveys consistently show that for many of them the television is their only companion, says Kate Jopling, senior policy manager at Help the Aged.

"The reality is that many old people finish their lives feeling very lonely. Loneliness and isolation not only make you feel unhappy but also can impact on your mental and physical health long term. When people of this age find someone who can offer them companionship and care, it's of huge value."

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