The social and economic contribution of our elders
A conference report from the BGS Spring Meeting in Belfast, by Liz Gill.
Another look at the future came from Claire Keating, commissioner for older people in Northern Ireland. “Shed loads of people are having increased longevity and that is a challenge but no-one becomes 80 overnight so it’s a case of planning. And current projections are not set in stone. For instance, we need to treat older people who have bowel cancer now but we also need to get their grandchildren to eat more vegetables so that there aren’t unacceptable levels when they get to that age.
“We get obsessed with money and the pessimistic outlook gets more attention. Yet the latest research shows that when you add up all economic and social contributions and all the taxes and voluntary work, older people make a net contribution to society of £40bn.
“Where we spend money is a matter of politics but when we’re deciding what we’re going to do, we must also acknowledge diversity, we mustn’t homogenise the group. You can’t just say you like old people like you say you like dogs. They’re individuals and different things matter to them. And not everything to do with someone is about age. One man told me he thought it was unreasonable that because he was over 70 he shouldn’t pay tax on his income but it turned out he’d just got back from a cruise and he has 14 flats let to students. This wasn’t an age issue - he was a professional landlord.”
What everyone did hope for though, was good ageing both for themselves and younger generations. That included health facilities, mobility, integrated transport systems, volunteering opportunities, the means of influencing decision makers and the absolute certainty of knowing that if we became frail, bereaved or ill, the care and support we needed would be available unequivocally.
David Sinclair, assistant director for policy and communications at the International Longevity Centre, highlighted the astonishing growth in the number of centenarians. There were already 11,800 in the UK; there could be half a million in 40 years. “These centenarians may be naturally genetically stronger but the next generation may be living post cancer, heart disease and strokes and need extra health care costs amounting to an estimated £36bn.”
Three quarters of the oldest old, those over 85, had problems including illness, loneliness, depression, falls, poverty and poor quality of life. Another factor for concern was the increasing number of people living alone, as was the fact that the global downturn was making it hard to save.
The good news was that dependency and other problems were not inevitable but steps did need to be taken and baby boomers needed to be better informed. “There’s this happy snaps image of the Saga generation and the assumption they’ll be able to solve everything. But a lot of them are in denial. Why aren’t they asking for shingles jabs and adapting their homes? Why are handrails only put in after someone falls?”