The area of government policy that has continually depressed me the most (and I’m talking successive governments here) is that around older people and ageing. What we at NDTi call the ‘demographic dialogue’ of public policy and the media creates a culture whereby older people are seen as a problem and a burden on society.
Read almost anything from government policy, think tanks or the national press and you will see older people being described negatively. They are ‘bed blockers’ in hospitals, creating a ‘financial precipice’ in public finances and the cause of a pension system crisis that means younger people will have to work longer. Older people are portrayed as being the cause of problems that government and society have to address.
I beg to differ. There are three fundamental flaws in this perception of older citizens:
1. It sees older people as primarily passive recipients of services provided by the state or wider society, denying or even discouraging their capacity to continue to give to the communities around them.
2. The service and cost modelling is substantially based on an assumption that we will do the same in the future as we have done in the past – rather than explore more innovative options that could change the financial parameters
3. It conveniently appears to forget the contributions that people have made to society, through their work, taxes, caring and creativity. Is it too old fashioned to still think that society may have some obligation in the form of ‘pay-back’ time that should argue against using the language of burden?
I will put the third point to one side as it is primarily influenced by values and opinions and instead focus on the first two – and tell you about Ted.
About eight years ago I moved to live in a small village and on the first night checked out the local culture at the village pub. Ted was propping up the bar. He’d lived in the village all his eighty years (though insisting that he’d lived elsewhere for five – subsequently found to be the hamlet two miles up the road). I spent a thoroughly enjoyable evening learning from Ted about the village and the people in it. No-one had the knowledge he possessed. For the next three years, any debate about whether or not to go to the pub was influenced by the comment “Ted’ll probably be there” – which encouraged a decision to go. Put simply, he was good and interesting company, with many a tale to tell.
It wasn’t just me. Others in the village felt the same – which was why he was able to continue to live the life he wanted, on his own, in his own house (handily fifty yards from the pub). Different people helped him to plan and take his medication. There were always offers to take him to appointments, check he was OK and help him home from the pub (sometimes in a wheelbarrow). In return, Ted provided wonderful company, a stream of anecdotes, legendary "ladies' evenings" (OK, he didn’t get sexism), occasional vegetables from his garden in the summer (though there was always a suggestion that some of his winning veg at the annual flower show started life at Sainsbury) and a major contribution to the village sense of community.
My point is this. The village hasn’t been the same since Ted died a few years ago. I’m not the only person who doesn’t go to the pub so often given we won’t find him sitting there. The pub’s takings have probably gone down, but more importantly people’s lives (including my ‘social capital’) are poorer. The community supported and encouraged Ted to give – which he did – and in return we gave back. The cost to services was minimal until his last few months of serious illness. In many other places he would have been whipped into an extra care housing set-up years before, at a cost to the tax-payer, a loss to the village and certainly not in Ted’s best interests.
Public services didn’t achieve this – the community, with Ted, did it. Yet if both Ted and the village had bought into the notion that his ageing was turning him into a burden, is it not likely that a different outcome would have occurred? My recently deceased mother-in-law spent her last years determined not to be the burden on family and neighbours that she understood to be a result of her ageing (we never did persuade her to stop reading the Daily Mail or watching Jeremy Kyle). As a result she saw services as the answer. That need not have been the case. She could have been a Ted, but instead allowed the ‘burden’ rhetoric to hold sway.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has recently published a study by NDTi (in partnership with Community Catalysts) on alternative support options for older people with high support needs. It explores the potential for mutuality and reciprocity between older people, their families, friends and communities. One clear conclusion is that such initiatives cannot be service driven, but have to be ‘bottom up’ – as it was for Ted. For that to become widespread, two important things need to happen. Firstly, services should stop thinking that traditional services are always the answer. More importantly though, the Government, the media and all of us need to change the demographic dialogue – stop speaking of older people and ageing as a burden and a problem, and instead recognise and share people’s assets and contributions in ways that make us celebrate the age diversity of our communities.