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Society, Politics & Law

We badly need a new minister for senior citizens

Updated Tuesday, 10th June 2014

Our older population is increasingly neglected by society and their needs are being ignored by politicians of all parties, writes Duncan Barkes.

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A cartoon depicting a 'perfect storm' of issues surrounding an ageing population with a call out: Missing: A minister for senior citizens Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Catherine Pain

The challenges facing our country as our senior population continues to increase are many. Yet in this political climate of short-termism, where everything seems to be geared around winning the next election, a very real problem is emerging. Successive governments are all guilty of kicking this issue into the long grass in the hope it might go away. It will not.

We are in danger of leaving millions of pensioners without the care, support and resources they will all desperately need and deserve in their later years. Figures from the charity Age UK show how our country is changing at a pace unmatched by government and political action. We will soon have a population with significant numbers over 65 and little is being done to prepare for this.

There are 10.8 million people aged 65 or over in the UK.There are now more people in the UK aged 60 and above than there are under 18 and there are more pensioners than there are children under 16. The number of people aged 60 or over is expected to pass 20 million by 2031. The number of people over 85 is predicted to double in the next 20 years, and almost treble in the next 30.

It is the charity and voluntary sectors that are doing the legwork when it comes to addressing current needs of our ageing population. Esther Rantzen set up The Silver Line Helpline just six months ago. It has received more than 100,000 calls since it was launched. More than half its callers said they had no one else to speak to other than the helpline.

Just under 50 per cent of Helpline users said they often go more than a day without talking to anyone – some said they went more than a week without even having a conversation. A community radio project in Hampshire called Angel Radio broadcasts music and speech programmes tailored to the older population in the region. It provides companionship and information to those living alone. One has to question why it is left to charities to provide these vital services for some of our lonely senior population.

Technology has left some aged 65 or over isolated. A recent thinktank report estimated that four out of 10 people over 65 did not have access to the internet at home, with more than five million saying they had never been online. Today’s society is geared to being online and it is leaving many over-65s behind. How many times have you actually got through to a human being on the telephone in a government department, only to be told to “go to the website”?

The heartbreaking story of Anne, a retired art teacher from Sussex who committed suicide at the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland because she was frustrated at the lack of interaction in modern life, should be a wake-up call. The 89-year-old ended her life because she thought our reliance on computers and the internet had left many people of her generation alone and without conversation. It is a timely reminder that some in our older population feel left behind by the advances of the modern world.

It is not just about ensuring services are properly provided to stop our senior population feeling lonely and out of touch. There are other issues such as dementia and pensions that will impact on our growing older population. In 2012 the Alzheimer’s Society released figures showing that there were 800,000 people in Britain with dementia.This figure is projected to increase to one million by 2021 and 1.7 million in 2051.

Experts have written at length about Britain’s looming pension crisis but there is a perfect storm brewing that requires drastic action. The Government’s main approach seems to be increasing the age from which the state pension is payable and encouraging us to save more. Many people are simply unable to save more than they already are. Continually raising the retirement age does little to address the cause of the crisis. The basic arithmetic is simple.

Given the Age UK figures, and bar an explosion of people making babies, we will not have a sufficient working population paying enough tax to fund the pension requirements of our large and increasing older population in decades to come.

Isolation, the growth in dementia, a pensions deficit and an increasing pressure on health and social care are all challenges which a growing senior population will generate. It is not good enough to have these areas covered by various government departments. To acknowledge and address them properly they need to be brought under one umbrella position. Which is why Britain desperately needs a minister for senior citizens.

It is only right to put the needs and wants of this ever-growing segment of our society first for once. At the moment one gets the sense that the Government is putting its fingers in its ears and not listening in the hope that it will become someone else’s problem.

This neglect simply will not do. 

This article first appeared in the Daily Express and is reproduced with kind permission.

This blog post is part of Society Matters. The blog seeks to inform, stimulate and challenge our understanding of this changing world and of our humbling role within it. Find out more about the blog and the team.
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