Ageing is a strange and foreign country described mostly in negative terms in guide books for those whom, much to their surprise, find themselves lost in its hinterland, often unsuitably dressed and without a compass. A youth-obsessed society that makes a mint from mining the alleged horrors of growing older – all sag and no sagacity – has locked us into a set of taboos that means millions of us are moving from middle age into possibly decades of allegedly unproductive, dependent, parked-up old age without sufficient armament or attitude of mind to challenge prevailing prejudices. Except that today we may literally have been thrown the semblance of a lifeline.
Ready for Ageing, a potentially ground-breaking report by the House of Lords select committee on public service and demographic change, is a treat to read, and not just because I already own a free bus pass. It is the first coherent attempt to provide a passport for older life that treats those over 60 as active citizens, not liabilities. It tells us what we urgently need to hear, not least because society can no longer afford to pretend that it is forever Peter Pan.
In the 1900s, very few lived to enjoy even a couple of years of retirement. Now, as Ready for Ageing points out, England will see a 50% rise in the number of those aged 65 and older and a 100% increase in those aged 85-plus between 2010 and 2030. To add to the challenge, ageing is no longer an orderly chronological process; anarchy rules. When my mother was young everyone thought 65 years of age was synonymous with senility. The dependency of others wasn’t always manageable but it had a logical coherence. Now, I am in my 65th year with a teenage daughter still at home, and a mother in her 90th year who has a fragile independence boosted by an indomitable spirit, living 70 miles away. Housing doesn’t allow for her to live near us; she treasures her autonomy; we can’t move until the youngest child leaves school. The situation is not uncommon. We all lack elasticity in family life because we are stuck with a welfare state, employment practices and social policies cut to a cloth designed in and for the 1950s.
The report argues cogently that that has to change. Among the measures it suggests are a White Paper, cross-party commissions, changes to employment, pensions, housing and financial preparation for old age and, crucially, a “remarkable shift” in the NHS, to properly join up health and social care (and, one hopes, put a fair value on care itself – desperately short-changed at present). It’s only when you try to navigate the system for an elderly relative that you realise how an older person’s wellbeing and resilience matter less than the place in the NHS hierarchy of the hospital consultant, GP and social worker.
Wiser investment in ageing ought to free up more resources for the neglected young, whose talent is in peril of going to waste, to everyone’s cost. The report reminds us that young and old are inextricably linked, not citizens of hostile planets. It calls for leadership and vision and new initiatives. All welcome, but there are still a couple of crucial elements missing.
One is the recognition that ageing is not gender neutral. Older men, for instance, are more isolated; women live longer, but are strongly pressured to continue to care and become wrinkle-free nonagenarians. Second, the business of ageing is not just about the practical, it is also about culture and ethos and the value we place on that which should be beyond the reach of the market.
Older people have assets and capabilities and talents, too; they are often intensified, not erased, by age. As part of a new social contract, they don’t want to be “done to” by professionals, treated as infants, without learning, history or values. In that respect, vocabulary matters, (no “elderly” or “silver surfers” thanks) and diversity of what it means to age (with and without a proper income) should be recognised.
It is telling that the report comes from the energised older House of Lords, while it is the young who make policy. What remains to be seen is how we collectively respond to the question the poet Andrew Motion asks: “Is it only when you become like me that you will hear what I have to tell you?”
By then, of course, for society, it’s much too late.
Old age should not be approached with horror – The Guardian (blog)
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