To tackle ageism requires a national strategy which looks to build on ways to make our final decades more positive.
Why does the UK not have a national strategy on ageing that brings together different strands of policy and gives a positive vision of how we can move forward?
A recent conference on the future of ageing, organised by the International Longevity Centre, heard from Paul McGarry, from Greater Manchester Combined Authority, that, in addition to a national strategy, a social movement was needed to lobby for changing attitudes around ageing.
He added that local authorities were key, but many had not done a lot of work on the issue in part because of demoralisation after years of cuts, particularly in social care.
McGarry is head of a small interdisciplinary team of researchers, policymakers, citizens and others which is working in Greater Manchester to develop its priorities around the ageing population. Heralding a “point of renaissance” on ageing, he said corporate firms were now looking at it and countries such as Japan were doing interesting work. The UK, however, was only just beginning to take it seriously, he said.
McGarry’s group are focused on innovation and integrating other grand global challenges, such as sustainability, and ensuring they came up with ideas that worked for all communities. They are plugging into economic issues, such as the skills gap, and local authorities’ social inclusion agenda. By linking up to wider issues the work has more impact, he said.
Helena Herklots, the Older People’s Commissioner for Wales, echoed McGarry’s calls for a national framework on successful longevity which she said needed to include respect and social inclusion around employment, housing and transport and to be based on the World Health Organisation’s goals.
“We need to recognise the overall contribution of older people, including to unpaid care and not just focus on them as wealthy consumers,” she said.
Herklots said policy needed to focus on very local economies and public bodies needed to be held accountable for their treatment of older people, in particular for elder abuse. There should be a more positive attitude about facing up to the challenges of our ageing population with councils working to create age friendly networks, said Herklots. Lifelong learning and opening apprenticeships to everyone were important elements, but to ensure take-up we need to change the prevailing culture and change our ageist attitudes, she added. If not, any changes would just be symbolic. Wales was starting to think about these things, to build age friendly communities and to work on an ageing strategy, she stated.
George MacGinnis from UK Research and Innovation added that the focus of research on ageing is too negative and all about the end stage, rather than on earlier prevention, what older people want and enabling people to make the most of their longer lives.
The session was chaired by Andy Briggs, formerly CEo of Aviva and now co-chair of the UK Longevity Council. An Aviva representative was also in the audience and remarked that SMEs were often more aware of the business imperative to do something as companies risk losing experienced workers.
In the discussion that followed panellists spoke of how the business case for a multigenerational workforce and for supporting older workers and challenging ageist attitudes could be made rather than it becoming a tick box exercise. “Employers need to understand that infrastructure is about people,” said Herklots who added that people on the ground needed to challenge ageism among employers and line managers.
The session was followed by a presentation by Professor David Blane from Imperial College, who drew attention to the occupational health impact of raising the state pension age. He said that by 2020 there would be an estimated 760,000 additional people in the workforce each year due to the rising retirement age. Around 10% of these will have a limiting long-standing illness, some of which will relate to working conditions. The quality of work is important. The chances of health issues developing as the workforce ages increases, he said, but the UK has not really focused on this. Occupational health research on the ageing workforce is sparse in the UK and the number of occupational nurses available is low and concentrated in large firms in the south east of the country. Others have to rely on their GP.
He called for employers to review their occupational health policies and for extra research into the ageing workforce.