By Virginia LowVirginia Low moved to London from New York in 1964 and is the founding member and Chair of The Stuart Low Trust
The consultant dermatologist whom I recently met qualified back in the mid 1960s, so he must be much the same age as me. Not that we mentioned age: apart from journalists, most people in our culture regard asking an adult’s age as intrusive. People are more likely to regard increasing age as an embarrassment than a source of pride, at least until they reach 80 and gain the status of having avoided an early death!
The consultant came to mind because the overwhelming talk about older people is not about their roles as participants in the paid workforce but as burdens on health and social services, victims of crime, frail and expensive layabouts on an increasingly slow journey to their final resting place.
There are, of course, outstanding exceptions such as David Attenborough, Michael Palin and the Queen. All of them are well over pensionable age and still working, but we don’t call them ‘elderly’ or even ‘older’. We admire them and accept them as exceptional.
As an Older People’s Champion for the London Borough of Islington 2011–2012, I campaigned for a year about raising the status of older people through a focus on the contribution of older people to community wellbeing and the economy. I argued for the need to raise the status of the volunteering so often performed by older people, not as a route to employment, not as ‘giving back’ (giving what back? — not privilege, wealth or power), but as a personally rewarding and socially valuable way of connecting people and getting things done. And I argued in favour of breaking down artificial barriers between older people and others by opening up older people’s services to all like-minded adults.
We need encouragement to form relationships between younger and older people to break down barriers of fear and misunderstanding and develop a sense of communality with people from other generations.
In 2011 the charity RVS (formerly the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service) calculated that the tax payments, spending power, caring responsibilities and volunteering efforts of people aged 65-plus contributed almost £40bn a year more to the UK economy than this group received in state pensions, welfare and health services, and the net contribution was expected to rise. Latest official figures show that the numbers of over-65s in paid employment are also on the rise.
This perspective contrasts sharply with the focus of a recent talk by the head of Islington Council’s Housing and Social Services, in which he forecast an ‘Axis of Doom’: the council thrown into unsustainable debt because of decreasing borough income and increasing numbers of older people needing services. Obviously the message about the net contribution of older people had not reached him.
Social Services could be forgiven for not noticing the bigger balance sheet, because when it comes to contribution older people tend to be lumped in with everyone else. Yet by overlooking the specific contribution of older people, not challenging the message of ‘the burden of old age’, the benefits of healthy living become more obscure for younger and older people alike.
If increasing age means becoming burdensome to yourself and the people around you, you might as well drown thoughts of the future in drink, drugs and doughnuts and accept the idea of an earlier demise. Meanwhile the doctor will prop you up with pills.
A climate of defeat overwhelms incentives to take exercise, eat plenty of fruit and veg, and develop new skills and social networks for a long lifetime of wellbeing. Why save for the future when the future will be bleak anyway? Flat interest rates give little incentive to save money.
Nowadays most older people live alone, not in multi-generational households. If young people don’t even hear about the contribution of the over-65s, or meet delightful, inspirational, hard-working and skilled older people — including over-80s and 90s, and those with dementia — why should they want to contribute to their wellbeing? We need to bring people together to explore mutuality of interest, not set up artificial barriers that force generations to feel that they must compete for resources.