Society’s attitudes to older people

Society’s attitudes to older people

There is a growing view that older people are a drain on our society.

To add to that, David Willetts has published a book recently, “The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Stole Their Children's Future”, which argues that middle-aged people, the so-called baby-boomers, have stolen their children’s future. There are growing calls for euthanasia, mainly- at this stage- from people who want to see older sick people having the right to ask their doctors to put an end to their misery. But this is a call that could certainly be used to encourage older people to think that they are useless- in this cultural climate- and encourage them to think of euthanasia as an alternative to a useless existence!

Meanwhile, policy changes are coming into effect, rightly,  to remove compulsory retirement ages, to encourage or even force people to work till they are older, because there is insufficient money in the pot for pensions, and there is even a move, gaining some political traction, to have a basic state pension, sufficient to live on very modestly, whether or not people have contributed- but presumably only on the basis of people retiring much later.

I think much of this, with some odd policy changes the other way, betrays an appalling attitude to older age. The very end of old age, for many people, is pretty hard going. About a quarter of us will end up in some form of residential care, although that might change if we get wiser about devising alternatives such as co-housing, communes for grown-ups, with a couple of carers living in to look after a whole group of older people, or even different forms of sheltered housing where people can choose who they want to live with, rather than be nominated by a local authority, whether they like it or not. Although we are living longer, we haven’t managed to reduce morbidity at the end of life, so though we have more years of good quality life, our last years can be ones where we are pretty sick, with some experts arguing that this is happening for longer than hitherto, because we are better at keeping people alive. We often hear scandals surrounding care of older people in care homes, in hospitals (Stafford, to name but one recent example), and at the hands of social services. So the question is this?

What is it that enables us, who know we are going to get old, to treat older people so badly? What is it that allows us to pay care workers, doing a tough job working with often dementing older people, so little, and train them so badly? How is it that nurses, there to alleviate suffering, are content to ignore calls for bedpans and for help, and to see older people unable to eat their food because they cannot reach it, a scenario which is sufficiently commonplace to be described as endemic? This is not about bad individuals- though some may be uncaring. This is about a cultural attitude that has swept the nation, even as we are ageing as a society and we see our parents and grandparents age too. Is this what we want for them? Or for ourselves? What should be done to change our attitudes to older people in the near future? And how can society make it plain that ill treatment of older people- elder abuse- is as horrific in our eyes as child abuse? For me, these are key issues of our time as we age- and I am as yet unconvinced that, as a nation, we take them seriously.

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