9 Jan 2013

Is it time for a ‘revolution’ in the way we age?

With the number of over-65s expected to nearly double by 2050 and little plan for how to support them, Channel 4 News looks at what can be done to cope with the perfect storm of an ageing population.

Why we need a 'revolution' in the way we age

Long life used to mark out societies that were healthy and happy. It was a sign of a well-developed nation that could look after itself.

But the alarming rate of growth in the numbers of people aged over 60 in the UK has become a cause for concern, as society grapples with the million dollar question of how we fund the support for this growing number of people who need it – against a backdrop of wider welfare cuts.

The figures alone are staggering. Almost one in five of the UK’s current population is over 60 and the over 50s make up a third of the population. There are now 3.2 workers for every pensioner in the UK, compared with 14 workers for every pensioner in the year 1900.

By putting state pension age later, we’re basically penalising those who die young to the relative benefit of wealthy people who live longer. Michael Johnson, Centre for Policy Studies

A House of Lords committee set up last year to look into the provision for an ageing population will today hear from the three ministers with responsibility for older people – Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, pensions minister Steve Webb and care minister Norman Lamb.

But if the massive delay to the white paper on state pensions, which was supposed to be published last March, is anything to go by, the solution is proving more difficult than anyone thought.

“The evidence we have received so far suggests that we are worryingly underprepared,” said Lord Filkin, the committee chairman.

Read more: Why your pension may be smaller than you think

Fit vs frail

For Michael Johnson, a research fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies who gave evidence to the committee, the difficulty with preparing for old age is that we are delving into the unknown: we don’t know how long we are going to live, and we have no idea if we will be reliant on social care.

But given that recent ONS estimates suggest we are all going to be living six years longer than previously thought, Mr Johnson believes we need to prepare for the worst. This means reframing the older age group in terms of a period of “fit retirement”, which could mean a continuation of some kind of paid work, followed by a period of frail dependency, he told Channel 4 News.

This would render the concept of a fixed pension age irrelevant, and would also get around the divide within the older age group between rich and poor, with the wealthier cohort living much longer than their peers and falling into the “fit retirement” category for longer.

Read more: Why the ageing population is a good thing

The state pension age is already set to rise to 67 by 2028, and some suggest it could be aged 70 by 2040. But a specific pensionsable age for the over-60s is becoming arbitrary, argues Mr Johnson.

“We may have to rethink the state pension,” Mr Johnson told Channel 4 News.

“By putting state pension age later, as we are doing, we’re basically penalising those who die young to the relative benefit of wealthy people who live longer.”

David Gower, who relies on a care system 'in crisis'

System in ‘crisis’

As for the aforementioned frail dependents, the situation as it currently stands is bleak. Jane Vass, head of policy for Age UK, goes as far as calling it a “crisis”. A growing number of older people are more reliant on care for many more years than anticipated, and the system is too reliant on people paying contributions that they cannot afford. One in 10 people will require social care exceeding £100,000 – for people on moderate incomes, this means losing 90 per cent of their assets. This in turn puts pressure on public services.

David Gower [pictured right], a 76-year-old with a severe neurological condition which affects his mobility, says there is a need for systemic reform. He lives in sheltered accommodation in the home counties and relies on care workers four times a day. Cuts to local authority budgets mean his care visits have been reduced from 20 minutes to 15, but his contributions to care went up from around £260 to £324 a month last year.

“Their time [carers’] is strictly rationed, so they can’t do all the things they want to do,” he told Channel 4 News.

“Last week my alarm battery packed up. The council said ‘We can’t do it; it’s not in your care work plan’. I had no alarm clock for 12 days – and that’s just one example.”

He also feels he is not consulted about his personal care plan, and feels totally at the mercy of his local authority.

“I’m deeply concerned that with the care system, there needs to be a national framework,” he said.

How can we get around the costs of social care (Getty)

Planning ahead

To get around the costs associated with social care, the Dilnot report recommended a £35,000 cap on personal contributions to social care, as well as a increase in the value of assets required before they are considered in contributions to residential care – from the current £23,500 to £100,000.

However, this leaves the public purse to pick up the tab. The government’s response to Dilnot is eagerly anticipated, but the Treasury is rumoured to have suggested raising the contribution cap to £75,000 – much to the exasperation of charities and health experts.

Whatever happens however, clarity about the future is the most important factor so that people can plan for their older years, says Ms Vas.

“At the moment, the system’s so confusing,” she told Channel 4 News.

“People need time to plan – 10 years needs to be the minimum. They would then have the clarity they needed to plan ahead and take some of the burden from the government.”

Talk about a ‘revolution’

But as well as changes to policy, the over-60s – and campaigners on their behalf – want to see a cultural change in perception from the bottom up.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has likened it to a “revolution” – away from the assumption of dependency and intergenerational conflict, and towards the realisation that how older people are supported affects all of us.

In fact, if attitudes – and then policies – can be changed, this will not only relieve the elderly from being a burden, but could also benefit the economy, with more people living active lives for longer.

So the sooner we can change the way we age, the better.