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Faces that tell a story

Mama has the best room in the house. She sees who comes through the front door, and nobody leaves until they have paid their respects to Mama. In the long afternoons she sits by the window, while children and chickens squabble in her little patch of garden. And woe betide the mite who beheads a favourite plant when Mama is watching!

Isn't that what they say to us, these smiling, confident faces gathered together from sundry places in every corner of the globe? Let's run it past Papa.

You might catch Papa in the square. There he passes the day with his friends, pipe in hand, a glass at his elbow, and at his feet the stick which he carries not so much as an aid to walking but as a symbol of office.

For Papa is truly a village elder - unofficial judge, unpaid councillor and, above all, unrivalled story-teller (his exploits as a young man are legendary).

Mama and Papa - living out their years with dignity and family, in far away countries (and some not so far) where society is woven tight on the handloom of tradition, and old people are valued for their experience, esteemed as true "senior citizens".

It's a picture we hold dear, so strongly does it contrast with the grainy images in our local papers. Granny afraid to go out. Grandad set upon for his miserable cold weather allowance. What kind of society produces teenagers who rape 90-year-olds? Why did it take weeks to find the old man's body? Didn't somebody call? Doesn't anybody care?

For us and for ours, there is naturally a third way. Every day it shines out of our televisions - a rosy picture of our own autumn years, painted in dappled tones by the advertisers of financial services and powerful cars. Granny wears intelligent specs and a permanent wave. She has Denplan teeh and Saga holidays and she spoils her grandchildren something rotten.

She can afford to. Her silver-templed husband wasn't pushed aside to make way for three ambitious young men who would work all hours for a quarter of his salary. No, he planned his retirement early (as chief exec, he called the shots). And today he has superb golf clubs, a distinguished car and all the time in the world. Needless to say, he's still a boy at heart.

Better switch off now, though. The news is coming, and there's a cyclone on the way - a mudslide, an earthquake, a civil war, with as much ethnic cleansing as it takes to fill the space before the regional news and weather. Quickly. Punch the button. For who knows what lined faces we might recognise in that perpetual chain of refugees?

And when you have put down the remote control, take up those portraits again and tell me something. These 18 faces. Do they gaze directly back at you with their steady blue eyes? Or do they look a little to one side, as though watching something over your shoulder - something stealing up on you from behind? No? I guess it was just a trick of the light.

Web links In 1961, there were four people of working age to sustain each pensioner. By 2040, there will be two. Find out more about "The Millennium Debate of the Age" on Help the Aged offers a programme of talks for schools wishing to raise young people's awareness of age issues. For details, visit Help the Aged also has a list of useful links on For a huge list of informative and entertaining websites for and about old people, visit Silver Surfers at homepagesSMilne6silv.htm

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