A third of Scots are deferring retirement because they cannot afford to give up work and the age at which people expect to retire has risen from 62 to 68.

It is no surprise that this latest snapshot of Britons’ view of retirement focuses on finance. Discussion of old age in the UK has been conducted around the question of how the state can provide adequate pensions and care packages for the growing proportion of older people. The phrases “tax burden” and “demographic time bomb” have become the main drivers of both public and private policy.

Not before time, this one-sided view of old age has received some provocative taps this week. In The Herald two redoubtable elderly ladies, Rhona Weir and Hannah Stirling, have sounded stirring calls to defend their beloved Loch Lomond and other scenic areas of Scotland from the visual pollution of wind turbines. The arguments for and against wind power are irrelevant here; the case I make is for listening to the experience of our elders. To dismiss those in the oldest age group as simply resistant to change is wilfully to ignore the lessons of the past.

Mrs Weir and Mrs Stirling, each in their tenth decade, take a long view of the threat to the Scottish countryside: Rhona in continuing the environmental campaigning of her late husband, Tom Weir, and Hannah in co-founding the Friends of Loch Lomond to oppose a hydro pump storage scheme on Ben Lomond and instigating many conservation improvements since their success on that issue. In their unabated concern for the future rather than the past, however, they are models of how to live a long life to the full.

The secret, according to a book exploring that subject, which took France by storm last year and is enrapturing listeners to Radio 4, where it is currently book of the week, is to cultivate joy in life. The author, psychologist Marie de Hennezel, sums up her philosophy in the title: “The Warmth of the Heart Prevents Your Body from Rusting.”

The catch to this is that the surest route to success is to start long before retirement. Just as regular exercise and a healthy diet lay the foundation for physically active later years, so a social life and frequent mental work-out pave the way for a stimulating retirement. It is a truism but one too important to dismiss that the pensioners who most enjoy their retirement are not just the ultra-busy who embrace voluntary work, looking after grandchildren and hobbies but those who accept that diminishing physical ability is no barrier to finding joy in small things. The chief obstacle to fulfilment is poverty. It is no surprise that an in-depth study of older people in the UK found that those on the lowest incomes had the lowest quality of life, with worse health and greater isolation.

The prospect of life continuing to be dominated by work for five decades, however, is a dispiriting one unless it provides personal fulfilment beyond the financial reward. As policy-makers attempt to balance the cost of an increasing proportion of pensioners in the population with the now-urgent need to provide jobs for young people unable to find suitable employment, the solution is obvious. Flexibility. A new approach to work (and pensions and national insurance contributions) which would enable everyone between the ages of 50 and 70 to work part-time would provide a gradual path to retirement on full pension and free up space for young people in the labour market while retaining the knowledge and experience of older workers.

The dispiriting ill-health and social isolation which blight the last years of too many lives is the consequence of allowing market forces to hijack social values. The three-generation household is now rare. If the economic slowdown forces its return, the bonus will not only be grandparents providing extra childcare. They will show by example that the goal is not to live longer, but to live better.