Champion our elders for the good of all’

Virginia Low at the London Olympic stadium

By Virginia Low

Virginia 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.

Group of cyclists waiting for the start of their charity ride, by SabrinaIn 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.

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