Older people: Citizens or burden? A new policy for ageing

Older people: Citizens or burden? A new policy for ageing
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YOU COULD BE FORGIVEN for thinking that older people in a western society like the UK are the equivalent of social terrorists. Politicians and policymakers increasingly talk them up as a growing ‘crisis’, ‘burden’ and ‘problem’. There are too many of them. They are surviving to grow older and older, a tax burden on the young and imposing increasing costs on health, social care and other public services. At the same time, right wing politicians are reluctant to cut their benefits because they see them as safe votes for their reactionary policies. There is a real failure of policy for ageing.

Attacks on older people at the margins, for example, current campaigns to abolish free TV licences for over 75s and freedom passes for pensioners, reflect the bankruptcy of these politics. Such ‘freebies’ are only needed because of the fear of losing family homes to pay for care costs.

The divide-and-rule tactics of the Tories along generation lines are part of this strategy. The age-related misinformation is exemplified through the protection of living standards for older people with the triple lock protecting pensions from inflation while freezing benefit rates for claimants.

The reality is that the UK pension is one of the lowest in Europe. Austerity has seen poor older people dying in disproportionate numbers because of poverty and cuts to health and social care.

There are regular outpourings about the difficulties facing older people, like loneliness and social isolation, lack of care and security. But these are mostly abstracted from their broader causes to remain unaddressed and unresolved. Older people are sentimentalised and patronised and at the same time institutionalised in disproportionate numbers. Meanwhile there is a core failure at political and policy level to recognise and respond to their rights and needs. Age may be a protected characteristic under equalities legislation, but don’t expect it to be treated with the same respect as issues of race, gender and sexuality.

Ageism is deeply imbedded in all our key institutions: from school to broadcast media, political debate to children’s TV. Ageism is perhaps the one thing that unifies the diverse population of older people and perhaps that should be our starting point if we seriously want to develop a truly sustainable policy strategy for supporting the rights and interests of older people.

Nothing else is likely to transcend the divisions that historically have undermined efforts to equalise the citizenship of ‘senior citizens’. This is a population that includes privileged members of the House of Lords as well as the ageing populations in prison, homeless and relying on non-contributory benefits. It is fractured by divisions on the basis of gender, sexuality, race, class, culture and income. It includes at least two generations which face big difficulties in their lives - those in their 80s and over, needing care and support, and those from their 60s often expected, sometimes without any serious formal help, to provide it.

We must accept the diversity of the population of older people. By some measures, the status starts at 50 and can go on for as long again, making up the majority of people’s adult life. Our suggestion here is that we need to reconceive the issue of ageing if we want to develop sustainable and appropriate policy and provision in response to it and meet the challenge of people’s increasing longevity.

And such policy needs to be properly connected to all our lives and all our policies and politics. Most of the seeds for the damage done to people during their older age are sown when they are much younger and so need to be addressed in policies for the life course.

We need to learn the lessons from the disabled people’s movement. Disabled people have fought for accessible environment and universal design. If you make the world accessible for disabled people then it becomes accessible for all. We need to build the principles of age-proofing into design, transport, education, housing, architecture and building regulations. ‘Nothing about us without us’ is a principle that needs to be embedded in policy development.

The National Pensioners Convention, established by the Transport and General Workers Union in 1979, can act as a starting point to build representative bodies run by older people for older people. These experts by experience can co-produce policies, programmes and services to change the agenda and power relations around ageing.

So we are suggesting policy for older age rather than for older people; policy which is rooted in a holistic understanding of the problems that damage people’s later life and which seeks to challenge the inequalities that so often underpin them.

Such an approach to policy will need to be based on a central recognition of the need to address:

  • Ageist discrimination - in culture, media, individual and collective attitudes and behaviour.

  • The diversity of older people, both in relation to age and opportunity and equality issues.

  • The reality that older people have made their contribution and are still net contributors, even if they are no longer in paid work, providing adult and child care, as volunteers and consumers and as sources of experience and wisdom.

  • Co-production - activating older people as active creators not passive consumers.

It will also need to extend beyond dedicated ‘pensioner policy’ to reshape and age-proof public policy more generally. Key facets of this are likely to be:

  • We know that health inequalities generated during the life course relating to class differences have significant effects on the health status, length and quality of people’s later life. Timed targets to reduce these inequalities need to be set with urgency.

  • All social policies need to be reviewed through the lens of age discrimination to challenge the perpetuation of ageist practices in relation to older people.

  • The quality of people’s retirement and later years is influenced by the opportunities they have from school through to their later working years to explore opportunities and alternatives for later life. Such opportunities and expectations need to be equalised upwards.

  • Transport policy, particularly public transport, should be subjected to review to ensure that it is not restricting older people’s human right to freedom of movement or inappropriately pressuring them to continue to drive.

  • Social care needs to be available on the same terms as the NHS, free at the point of delivery for all older people. It needs to be recast as part of a newly established Independent Living service organised alongside the NHS nationally and delivered locally. It also needs to be taken back into the public sector with local delivery through co-operatives and user-led organisations.

  • There needs to be a radical renewal of pensions policy which decouples it from the market and reconnects it with people’s rights and needs. » The age of retirement should be a genuine choice so that people are not forced to work for a longer or shorter time than they would wish and preparation for retirement, including opportunities for phased retirement, should be built into employment policy and practice.

  • Welfare benefits and social care policies for older people need to be radically reviewed, drawing on the philosophy of independent living developed by disabled people, to support people to live as full lives as possible, rather than being based on a deficit model to compensate for perceived incapacity.

  • People’s rights as grandparents should be fully safeguarded and ensured through the provision of legal aid.

  • Establishing representative unions and organisations of older people (rather than charities for older people) which can co-produce policy, advocate, lobby, campaign and develop services with and run by older people.

Mark Harrison is director of Social Action Solutions, and Senior Research Fellow in Social Action at the University of Suffolk.

Peter Beresford is co-chair of Shaping Our Lives, the disabled people's and service users’ organisation and network, and Professor of Citizen Participation at the University of Essex.