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This is Getting Old

The UK's end-of-life care is failing our elderly



Coated in candles and slathered with buttercream icing, growing old is a trap. It certainly had me fooled; seduced by bowls of party rings and games of ‘doughnuts on a string’, I used to consider birthdays an annual highlight. Later, impending exams and deadlines meant ‘retirement’ — consisting largely of guiltless six o’clock cocktails and sojourns in exotic climes — represented a speck of hope on my speculative horizon. Only when I spoke to the elderly around me did I realise how wrong I’d been.   


As a generation, we’ve developed countless fallacies about old age. Pitting our unfortunate selves against the so-called ‘Boomer generation’, we consider over-65s as our wealthy, home-owning, perhaps politically incorrect counterparts. After all, national wealth is proportionately concentrated in the hands of older people, and some 80 per cent of these ‘fortunate’ are homeowners.


But this is hardly the full picture. Wealth inequalities between pensioners far outweigh cross-generational disparities, with those from ethnic minorities or who occupy rented properties faring the worst. Given that many people are opting to stay in work for longer — itself hardly an indication of later-life opulence — people aged between 65 and 74 are a comparatively ‘wealthy’ cohort. Yet, studies show that wealth drops significantly once people begin to draw on their pension funds or finance social care. According to Age UK, around 18 per cent of pensioners live in relative poverty, and millions are being forced to turn down their heating and skimp on food to afford the rising cost of living; escapist utopia retirement it is not.


Equally, it is a particularly cruel irony that many have labelled Boomers a ‘drain’ on UK resources. Relatively speaking, people between 65 and 74 are the most likely to volunteer — an impulse which is sadly lacking in our own generation. Forced to compensate for more than a decade of cuts to the social care sector, around three million over 50s are also unpaid care workers. This is to say nothing of free grandchild care, a necessity for many working parents. Retired they may be, but pensioners make invaluable and sadly undervalued economic contributions to society.


All this, yet the elderly hardly get a look in when it comes to assigning government resources. Countless ‘levelling up’ schemes cater to the needs of young people, yet the latest Autumn Statement said almost nothing about older people’s needs. Bus passes benefit those in urban areas, but rural residents continue to be isolated. Given the infrastructural scarcity of public toilets, disabled access routes, and old-age community centres, it comes as no surprise that over-65s spend an average of six hours per day watching television; their options are cruelly limited.  


Describing ourselves as the unfortunate ‘Covid generation’, we seem to have overlooked the vulnerable elderly who were forced to isolate for even longer. Facing frequent delays to elective surgery, the medical condition of many over-65s deteriorated irreversibly. Millions became reliant on the charity of others to secure groceries, with many too fearful to use public transport or to leave the house. I can’t imagine lockdowns without access to social media, yet this was the reality for older people, many of whom were isolated from the technologies which kept us all in touch.


This might all sound rather gloomy, but systemic change is not unfeasible. Simple schemes, including a recent suggestion to introduce a Duke of Edinburgh Award for over-60s, could help to reintegrate the elderly into their local communities. Outreach programs consistently prove transformative at a regional level, and merely require a greater uptake from young volunteers to make a difference nationally. More radical suggestions, including co-living schemes with younger renters, have begun to challenge the status quo. Once we cease to glorify retirement as a ‘golden future’ and begin to appreciate the plight of older people in the UK, meaningful political and economic change will surely follow.

     

After all, with current life expectancy sitting around 86, and the prospect of some 25 per cent of our population exceeding 65 by the mid-century, the issues of elderly people can hardly be ignored much longer. This is Getting Old, and it will be our turn soon.


Illustration by: Ruby Pitman

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