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Does Old Age Have To Mean Life On The Sidelines?

September 16, 2010

What happens to people as they get older? What should be the starting points for more consideration of this vexed question? With post-war babies now reaching retirement and many of their parents still alive, the numbers of elderly people in the UK is increasing dramatically.

Socio-economic infrastructure nonetheless still often lags behind; whilst never unimportant, advanced old age was until quite recently not a widespread issue. But significantly extended life expectancy is something which will now impinge on most of us, directly.

The demographics of old age
The Office for National Statistics tells us that
There is a pressing need to understand better how to accommodate and respond to this shift in the UK’s demographic.The estimated resident population of the UK was 61,792,000 in mid-2009, up by 394,000 on the previous year. Children aged under 16 represented approximately one in five of the total population, around the same proportion as those of retirement age. In mid-2009 the average age of the population was 39.5 years, up from 37.3 in 1999…..

Up to the age of around 70, the number of males and females are fairly equal. At older ages, towards the top of the pyramid, females outnumber males. This is shown by longer bars on the female side of the pyramid. The ratio of females to males increases progressively from 1.1 at age 70, to 2.1 by the age of 89. This reflects the higher life expectancy of women at older ages and higher male mortality during the Second World War….. People of working age (aged 16 to 64 for males and 16 to 59 for females) represent 62 per cent of the total mid-2009 population.

By this reckoning the average age of Britons has risen by two years in the past decade or so, and there is roughly one dependent person in the UK for every two of working age.

The Parliamentary Business website drives this message home, in its commentary on The ageing population:
10 million people in the UK are over 65 years old. The latest projections are for 5½ million more elderly people in 20 years time and the number will have nearly doubled to around 19 million by 2050. Within this total, the number of very old people grows even faster. There are currently three million people aged more than 80 years and this is projected to almost double by 2030 and reach eight million by 2050. While one-in-six of the UK population is currently aged 65 and over, by 2050 one in-four will be. The pensioner population is expected to rise despite the increase in the women’s state pension age to 65 between 2010 and 2020 and the increase for both men and women from 65 to 68 between 2024 and 2046. In 2008 there were 3.2 people of working age for every person of pensionable age. This ratio is projected to fall to 2.8 by 2033.

With data like this to hand, there can be no avoiding the stark fact of an ageing population.

Individuals’ communities change
In a recent New Start ‘Your blog’ entry we took a look at how Communities are much more than localities, and at some of the many things which shape people’s understandings and experiences of communities.

Amongst the factors identified as influencing these understandings was ‘age’ – the universal but constantly changing experience of all of us.

Throughout childhood and until well into middle age most people find that their knowledge, experience and social worlds expand, as does to whatever degree their influence both in family contexts and, if in paid employment, at work.

The economic contexts
As people approach retirement things begin to change. Experience may continue to accrue, but influence fades. It is a very common complaint of those who have retired that they become invisible – and just at the point where their needs become greater.

For a number of reasons, moral, social and economic, this invisibility and lack of influence is unacceptable. People do not choose when they will be born, or how this will affect their life expectancy, but we as a society can and must take greater responsibility for the quality of older people’s lives – as we already absolutely correctly attempt to, when people are at the other end of the dependency spectrum, in the early years.

And, when it comes to economics, it’s not only the costs to society of ageing which we need to consider, but also the missed chances to use skills acquired over a lifetime, as Sarah Longlands pointed out in her New Start blog in June on The economic opportunities of ageing.

Connecting communities and economies
The social invisibility and economic sidelining of older people are fundamentally connected. This is by-and-large the first generation in which retired people still have responsibilities for their parents: to illustrate, my own family stretches four generations and 95 years… and it’s becoming the norm. It has or will, with a fair wind, happen to most readers of this column.

Only rarely is it recognised that, just as people’s individual and personal experience of communities is in flux throughout life, so should be their economic activity. Of course in extreme old age it is unlikely that anyone will want paid work, but that is not the case for all others of retirement age.

Our employment practices however make this very difficult. Despite B&Q and a few other enlightened employers, the trend is towards seeing older people as having little to offer. But it’s the way most employment is set up which prevents engagement, not generally the lessening of competence and knowledge.

Much the same factors which mitigate against many women in the workforce also mitigate against the active involvement of older people.

A different sort of Big Society?
It would be wrong to suppose that most newly-retired people can or want to be volunteers. Some will be so happily, but others often need extra money which with more opportunity they could earn and thereby reinvest in their local economy to help create even more jobs. There is scope here for wider engagement of citizens, but not necessarily for free.

But neither should we assume that older people must always draw down their horizons. Their communities of interest need not always shrink – there are e.g. (and despite a few rigid universities) plenty of examples of 70-year-old professors….

It depends on the type of work and the health and energy of the individual, but the age-inclusive model can probably work, when ways to apply it are thought out.

Quality of life
It’s not however just employment for older people which we need to think about much more carefully.

The provision of appropriate, well-located housing and health and social support is a critical challenge. Disability in old age can be devastating for both the person concerned and their carers. To put it bluntly, the appliances and equipment of babyhood are often required again in bigger versions when people become disabled or very old; and that’s before we get to the deeply distressing prolonged isolation which some older people experience.

But how many of us truthfully face up to all this, until there is no escape from the reality?

Making the agenda visible
Old age is not a universally difficult stage in life, but it can be a challenge. The problem is that all too often the problems are put aside, as though they will impact only on a small (and neglected) minority of us.

That’s not, in the real world, how it is.

By ignoring older people we also fail to recognise critical matters of fact: The large majority of us, thanks to social and medical advances, will get old; and most of us will need at some point to care for very elderly dependents.

The personal is policy-political
Housing, health care, pensions, employment, well-being, shrinking networks or communities, disability, or what you will; these are some aspects of the real world experience of older people. And one day, if not now, that will be you.

How would you like to experience your advancing years? And how do you think the larger community should approach the issue for and with those who are already elders?

A discussion which continues
These are some of the agenda issues which Austin Macauley, Sarah Longlands and I, with some other New Start contributors, have been considering. What do you think, too?

A version of this article was first posted on the New Start Blog on 16 September 2010.

It was also selected as ‘Blog of the Month’ for October 2010 by New Start Magazine.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Hilary permalink*
    November 11, 2010 10:32

    Here’s another set of findings to consider, from Jamie Doward of The Observer (3 October 2010, p.8). He reports as follows:

    Crisis warning over homes and support for elderly
    The number of older people in need of housing and support services is set to quadruple over the next decade, prompting fears of a severe accommodation crisis among Britain’s growing population of pensioners.

    The National Housing Federation, which represents England’s housing associations, claims that with insufficient specialist housing and support services older people will find it difficult to secure a suitable property.

    There are around 70,000 people aged 60 and over in need of housing and related services, including help with every day tasks such as getting out of bed or feeding themselves, according to the federation. It is said that the figure is expected to rise to at least 300,000 by 2019.

    ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

    And a thought about the potential for mis-alignment of policy and pensions etc, reported by Graham Snowdon of the Observer (24 October 2010, p.48). I quote:

    Raising retirement age is a short-term fix, campaigners warn
    Government move will not solve the longer-term problem of an ageing workforce, age and employment organisations say

    Campaigners for older workers gave a cautious welcome to last week’s spending review commitment to more adult apprenticeships, but warned that raising the default retirement age was a “short-term fix” that did not address the issue of the UK’s ageing workforce.

    Under the terms of the review, the retirement age will rise to 66 by 2020. “This change is motivated not by the phenomenon of population ageing, but by the need to cut the pensions bill,” said Chris Ball, chief executive of the Age and Employment Network (TAEN). “It is a short-term fix without considering the longer-term challenges.”

    Ball said focusing on maintaining older workers’ skills, health and employability, whilst ensuring that jobs are more suited to older people, would better meet the goal of providing financial security for longer retirements.

    “If we can both encourage and enable a higher proportion of people to keep working up to 65, more workers would contribute taxes to the exchequer and such drastic changes to the pension age would be unnecessary,” he said….

    ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

    One final, very worrying extra bit of research before we move on. It’s from the website today (11 Nov ’10):

    ‘Wake-up’ call for elderly care
    Only one-third of elderly patients are receiving good treatment in hospital, a report has claimed.

    The National Confidential Enquiry into Patient Outcome and Death (NCEPOD) investigated the care given to 820 patients over 80 years of age, who died within 30 days of surgery being performed on them.

    The report found that 38% of them received care that could be classified as ‘good’, while two-thirds did not get reviewed by elderly care specialists.

    NCEPOD chairman Bertie Leigh warned the problems found in the report needed tackling now due to the UK’s [rapidly growing] ageing population….

    Problems highlighted by the survey of doctors and case notes included delays for needed treatment and a lack of acute pain services.

  2. August 3, 2011 19:15

    The articles you have discussed are very interesting.I am 80yrs old and have just returned to Liverpool. I live with my daughter and grandson. I spent the last 8yrs in the small town of Abergele. There is such a community spirit there and everyone regardles of age is both friendly and helpful. Most of my neighbours were welsh but they accepted my friend and I like one of their own.The bus drivers, the shop assistants, the librarians were not only friendly but when my friend was ill they rallied around and took me to the hospital and nursing home. It was like going back in time when the area you lived in Liverpool was the same. I lived in the dingle and neighbours were ready to help when help was needed. It is a shame that this type of community spirit does not seem to exist in Liverpool today. It is so essential when people reach my age that there are groups one can join. I came back to Liverpool because my daughter found the journey to wales too much for her and she worried about me coping on my own because I have osteoporosis and my spine has multiple fractures throughout and this restricts my walking ability. I am a very friendly person and I have tried to find groups of people in this area who meet for a chat and a cup of tea or coffee. I do belong to a photogrphic society but due to my disablement I cannot go on the organised trips. Maybe you will know of a group or society I could join during the day as I do not drive and would not like to travel on my own during the winter months. I am interestd in photography, poetry,politics and books.

  3. August 3, 2011 19:34

    Many thanks for this commentary. I did just wonder if the University of the Third Age might have anything to offer you?

    Best wishes,

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