Time For a Grown Up Conversation

The recent House of Lords select committee report on demographic change laid down a very large gauntlet to us all.

 Big, bold decisions are needed, says South West Forum on ageing chair Tony Watts (whose input went into the report) to meet the challenges presented by an ageing society – and take advantage of the potential opportunities. The starting point, he says, should be talking to older people themselves… and the Age Action Alliance is the perfect place to start.

Britain, we’re told, is “woefully underprepared” for the “demographic agequake” about to hit our shores. Powerful language indeed. So the answer to the title of Lord Filkin’s report, ‘Ready for Ageing?’ is obviously: “no”.

We all know the stats. For decades, as each seven years has passed, average life expectancy has increased by a year: a sort of “live six years, get one free”.

Fantastic news for those who prefer living longer to the alternative, but it is commonly portrayed as a doomsday scenario. Just how will we afford to keep this nation of oldies?

However, turn this round 180 degrees and we could convert challenges into opportunities… making ageing a chance to relook at the way we design and deliver a whole range of services, with benefits to all parts of society.

The Age Action Alliance, I believe, provides the perfect platform for this – because it brings together the organisations who will be providing the goods and services with the real experts on ageing: older people themselves.

Already within the Alliance there are a host of projects underway at a working group level, seeking to find practical answers to the challenges faced by today’s older generation. But perhaps now is also the time for a grown up conversation on the longer-term issues… and which will help get consensus and momentum behind the big societal shifts that we need to make if the “agequake” is to be headed off at the pass.

One of my key points retained in the final House of Lords report is that older people can be part of the solution. On issues such as tackling loneliness, providing informal care, supporting digital inclusion programmes, developing community transport and meal schemes… the UK’s well developed network of groups and forums is a vast, scarcely tapped resource, ready and willing to be involved.

All of the potential areas for action below (and there would be more if I had more space) can really progress if we can bring providers and older people’s groups and representatives together in closer working relationships – to design and pilot projects, and demonstrate what does and doesn’t work.

New homes for old…

We currently face a massive housing crisis. But do we really need new family homes sprawling over our greenfield sites? There’s huge scope for purpose-built retirement accommodation for seniors who would like the option to downsize into more manageable property.

Building density levels are higher, so more homes per precious acre, and the ideal locations are on central, brownfield sites close to amenities – not eating up our countryside. Because those needing support live closer together, the costs to them and our care services inevitably go down, while those selling their homes can release funds for their future care.

If just five per cent of pensioners made that move, 210,000 family homes would be released. To achieve that, we need a greater choice of more new, affordable retirement accommodation that really does meet older people’s needs and tastes, allows them to integrate with their local community, close to friends and family support networks and not feel they are living in an “older people’s ghetto”.

Closer working between developers, architects, local authorities and older people themselves could help achieve that.

Extending our working life

It’s simply untrue that working past retirement age denies jobs to youngsters. Yet this myth pervades, and poses (on one hand) the very real risk of intergenerational resentment, and (on the other) dissuading employers from retaining or hiring older staff.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies says there is: “no evidence of long-term crowding-out of younger individuals from the labour market by older workers”. What’s more, insists the DWP, a one-year extension to everyone’s working lives could increase real GDP by around one per cent – and add up to 10 per cent to our retirement income.  That could play a huge role in reducing pensioner poverty – especially at a time of historically low savings returns.

If people want, need, and are able to work past State Retirement age, they should be enabled to do so by employers offering more flexible working and shorter hours – enabling them to phase gradually into retirement while mentoring younger staff coming up through. Alliance members could play a big part in showcasing the benefits of how this can work and educating other employers.

Prevention is better than cure…

The advantages of integrating social and healthcare is one big message to come out of ‘Ready for Ageing?’ – because the current overlaps are costly, inefficient, confusing and potentially harmful to health. Prevention rather than cure is another positive proposal. Spending small amounts at one end of health and care services would save huge amounts at the other.

Shifts in both these directions could cut significant costs from hard-pressed budgets… if health and social services could be persuaded to work more closely together and focus on retaining wellness rather than treating illness. Older people are the biggest users of healthcare: get it right with this demographic, and others will benefit too.

The huge role that the voluntary sector already plays – on very little money – is now under threat because of cuts to funding. We need to demonstrate why this represents a false economy.

The Alliance has members from all sides: at a local, regional and national level, we need to work together and show where best practice can deliver better health for less.

New technology

There’s an explosion waiting to happen in providing digital technology that older people feel comfortable with and that can also integrate telehealth and telecare. It would enable older people to join in the “digital revolution” – researching their interests, getting cheaper online deals and keeping in touch with their friends and family by Skype… and the costs of care could be radically reduced.

But the floodgates will only open with more practical, hands-on research with older people showing what works for them – and then all of the links in the chain put in place enabling and supporting it, financially and technically.

Age-friendly design

A fantastic report produced in the latter days of the Labour Government under Baroness Andrews was subsequently buried. It highlighted the benefits of designing urban spaces that enabled and encouraged older people to get out more, stay fitter and engage more in society.

Moreover, “lifetime neighbourhoods” and “age-friendly” towns and cities also help younger people with health and mobility issues and could contribute towards reducing obesity. Carless, safer walkways are great for children too. It’s an investment for all our futures.

Again, many of the parties that could drive this debate and show what works are members the Alliance…

Let’s do this together

No one denies the challenges presented by an ageing population. But (with imagination and co-operative working) they are not intractable – and they could be turned to opportunity. In the immortal words of the Wilbert Harrison’s song, “Let’s work together…”

Tony Watts is a writer and spokesperson on older people’s issues, Chairman of the South West Forum on Ageing and a member of the Partnership and Editorial Boards of the Age Action Alliance.




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