There are some remarkable statistics in the latest Office of National Statistics report on the very old in the UK. But the most eye-catching is the fact that in 2014 there were 14,450 centenarians, a huge rise from the estimated 3,250 just 30 years ago. It means that, on average, 40 centenarians are celebrating their birthdays every single day of the year. Even more remarkably, by 2037 there are expected to be 111,000 centenarians in the UK, meaning that on any given day you could expect over 300 to be celebrating their birthdays.
However if you want to attend a centenarian birthday party today you should go to Japan, which already has around 59,000 people aged 100 and over. That means that on a typical day there will be 163 centenarians celebrating. That number- which is rising by around 5,000 every year – has recently begun to worry a penny-pinching Japanese government. It has traditionally given each centenarian a silver sake cup, or sakazuki, when they hit 100, at an annual cost of £1.3m. The planned response? To make the sakazuki from a cheaper metal.
In the UK there’s no gift but a somewhat cheaper tradition of sending congratulations to centenarians which began in 1908 when Edward VII had a message sent to the Reverend Thomas Lord of Horncastle. It read:
‘I am commanded by the King to congratulate you on the attainment of your hundredth year, after a most useful life.’
But it was not until 1917 and the arrival of King George that it became routine to send messages of congratulations to people celebrating important anniversaries. Today, centenarians receive one on their 100th birthday, 105th birthday and every year after that. For many years, the message was sent in the form of a telegram but is now sent as a card. The tradition has not been left untouched by rising numbers of centenarians though – in 2014 the team organising the cards was expanded to seven to cope with the increasing number of recipients.
My favourite celebration however comes from Australia. Since 1993 Australians hitting 100 have been eligible to join the rather wonderful 100+ Club, which says it ‘aims to bring centenarians together at different events so that they may talk to someone their own age and share their memories and stories!’ It is very much an elite organisation – the only way you can join is to reach 100 – and it even has its own Facebook page.
And the club’s motto? ‘Just Keep Breathing’.