Longer life expectancy and the resulting ageing of the population is popularly seen as problematic, with a focus on the costs and problems involved. But having a longer life is good news for most people and such a major demographic shift creates opportunities to re-think attitudes and values to the benefit of us all.
The key message is that we have the opportunity to stop seeing older people as ‘other’ and separate from the rest of society. If we are sufficiently fortunate, we will all become old, and as we age we have different needs that must be recognised and catered for.
What are the major challenges?
- Providing sufficient and appropriate care for older people in their own homes or in residential care, supplementing the enormous amount of care that families provide, and supporting those who have no immediate family including the growing proportion who are childfree.
- Providing suitable medical treatment for the increasing proportion of older people who often have multiple needs: mental and emotional as well as physical.
- Integrating health and social care and sorting out who pays for what. At present social care is the responsibility of the individual, their family or the local authority whereas health care is provided by the NHS. The fine distinctions between social and medical care are open to different interpretations and bring with them Kafkaesque complexities.
- Ensuring that there is comprehensive planning for health and social care, not piecemeal short term solutions and that there is the willingness to devote more resources to the issues.
- Valuing and drawing on the contribution of older people to society.
Working towards the British Geriatrics Society’s vision of ‘rooting out age discrimination’ and establishing social and policy norms that value and protect older people will make our society fairer and more compassionate, providing an investment in the future to the benefit of all.
- Medical and social care need to be re-focused to be more cost effective. For example, preventative measures supporting healthy life style choices delay the onset and severity of diseases such as dementia and diabetes and supporting schemes that help maintain social contact is known to improve the physical and mental health of older people, so important for those who live alone. Let’s keep the bus passes.
- The integration of medical and social care to make the provision of hospital beds more efficient and bring clarity to funding.
- Greater efficiency and equity in the provision of benefits can be achieved through providing advocacy for older people to help navigate the complexities.
- Take the opportunity to improve end of life care. We all want as good a death as possible.
- Improve medical and social care to help us to grow the resource that is older people. They already contribute greatly to our society and our economy undertaking most voluntary work and supporting their children and grandchildren for example through the ‘bank of mum and dad’.
We have the opportunity to stop seeing older people as ‘other’ and to work towards age-integration. We all have a part to play, as individuals, family and community members and policy makers. Much of what is suggested will take political will and an increase in resources, but in a civilised and relatively wealthy society it can and should be done.
Dr Marianne Coleman
Emeritus Reader in Educational Leadership
Institute of Education
Tickets are still available for the 2016 Future of Ageing Conference. Secure your place at http://www.futureofageing.org.uk/
Marianne Coleman is a co-author with Caroline Lodge and Eileen Carnell of The New Age of Ageing: How Society Needs to Change Policy Press.