It is awe-inspiring, and terrible, to think of the historical events that some of those we label “the elderly” have lived through.

I have recently been reading When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by the children’s book author and illustrator Judith Kerr, of Mog fame. Judith and her parents and brother, German Jews, escaped from Nazi Germany in March 1933, two days before their passports were going be seized. Judith was nine years old. They fled first to Zurich and then to Paris, and finally in 1936 to London, thus avoiding the death camps where six million other Jews, including 1.5 million children, were murdered.

The book is written from an authentically childlike perspective and is therefore amusing and upbeat, like the young Judith herself, who was barely aware of the dark cloud hanging over Europe’s Jews. She felt she and her beloved family were on a great adventure.

A reward was offered to anyone who returned her father Alfred, a famous critic of the Nazis, to Germany. Alfred cheerfully reassured his children Hitler would never get him, but the family had a chillingly close shave changing trains en route from Zurich to Paris. A porter, perhaps deliberately, led them to the Stuttgart train instead of the Paris train. They only realised the “mistake” in the nick of time. How differently things might have turned out.

Judith Kerr is now 93 and has lived for over half a century in the same house in south London. She has continued to work well into her tenth decade; this summer, she was presented with the BookTrust lifetime achievement award. But if you didn’t know this diminutive, white-haired lady, and passed her on the street, you could not possibly know that she carries with her such memories, of growing up in Weimar Germany, Paris and London, and living through the Blitz.

It seems almost fantastical to think that among those we sit next to in cafes, or glimpse through the net curtains of care home windows, are men and women who have lived such lives.

Too often, as a society, we see older people not as individuals, but as an amorphous mass and a problem. We learned this week that the number of Scots living past 100 has increased by two thirds in the last decade, prompting the usual comment about pressure on health and social care services. Often, the term used is “burden” – I’m afraid I have used it myself in comment and news reports over the years.

One could argue that at least “burden” has the distinction of being candid, in the context of NHS services. But it is also disrespectful and unfair, and feeds into a narrative about older people that portrays them as having less value than the young. It is time that changed. Today’s centenarians – and nonagenarians and octogenarians – have lived through the biggest social and technological changes in history. Among today’s “bed-blockers” are men and women who served in the Second World War; some can even remember the First World War. They were born in a pre-antibiotic age when telephones were luxuries, silent films were the height of modernity and Britain ruled an empire. Now, they are living in the age of cloning, internet telecoms and laser eye surgery.

They will not be with us forever, and we are idiots if we fail properly to honour and appreciate their unique, precious and irreplaceable experience while they are still here to talk to, learn from and cherish.