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What can you do to prepare for an ageing population?

By Paul Cann - posted Monday, 31 October 2016

The next politician, public health official or consultant that uses terms such as ‘demographic timebomb’ or ‘silver tsunami’should be sacked.  Yet even now there will be someone writing another gloom-laden report stating that dependency starts at 65. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth.

If economic forecasts factored in the boost that newly self-employed retirees will bring to output and growth, the reality would be shown to be very different. Indeed, a ‘golden age’ is approaching.

Every decade the average life expectancy at birth in the developed world increases by about two years. This is a remarkable achievement, and should be the subject of huge optimism amongst politicians, government officials and society at large.  And that’s the place to start in preparing for an ageing population.  


People want to get on with their lives, especially as they grow older.  Many want to carry on giving and being useful in some way.  As a subject in an Age UK study of care homes put it “All my life I’ve been needed – as a wife, a mother, a journalist – and we all need to be needed”.  Given a free choice many will prefer to carry on working; if not full-on, full-time, flat out, then more flexibly, maybe with a little bit of enablement and retraining.  So to prepare for an ageing population governments and policy makers should get out of their way: removing ageist laws, policies, procedures and communications that make it harder for people to live their lives.  And ensure that in the place of age barriers there is a legal foundation across all arenas of life of equality and protection from unfair discrimination.

Legislation is necessary but far from sufficient.  But it starts the ball rolling.  Many governments, including in the UK and Australia, have acted to give that kick-start by outlawing age discrimination, initially and bit by bit in employment, and care, and who knows one day in financial services.  What Australian governments can also do is fund even more advice and advocacy through independent agencies so that people understand the system they are trying to navigate. So many citizens are bewildered by the rules and lost in the care maze.

It is for us to claim our right to be equal citizens, not to be marginalised.  We perhaps need to be out there campaigning ever more stridently to see older people, however frail, isolated or poor to be treated with dignity and respect.  In the best book on ageing I have ever read “Not Dead Yet” Julia Neuberger looked approvingly at the strength of the seniors’ movement in the USA – the Grey Panthers, and the massive senior consumers’ lobby American Association of Retired Persons– and complained about the lack of anger amongst older people’s groups in the UK. Is that familiar to older Australians?

Inequalities in ageing and the avoidable, premature decline of our seniors can be dramatically reduced.  We need a life course approach which recognises that disadvantage sets in very early in life.  In the UK we have started work on tackling the transitions in life – from leaving school to entering care – which are hazard points when things could go either way for individuals.  Unless we prepare better, inevitable later life experiences like ‘retirement’, moving home and becoming a carer will continue to take us by surprise and become traumatic events not productive transitions.

So I am arguing for an ‘in the round’ mid-life check at age 50, facilitated by governments in their own economic self-interest, and asking the Not for Profits to deliver them.  Not just a perfunctory blood pressure and pulse check, but a long hard look at your health and what you could do to stay physically and mentally active, and also your wealth: are you storing up enough savings to keep you active and involved when on a pension?  And if not, what can you do now at this young age to prevent pensioner penury and all the attendant health miseries that go with that.  What skills do you need for the next phase of productive life?  Research by the UK’s Health Development Agency showed clear benefits achieved by using that resonant milestone of 50 as a spur to action to “prevent” a later life of poor health, poor wealth, and inadequate skills.  Prevention is better than cure. And far far cheaper.

In my youth I came across a stirring poem ‘Old Age Report’ by Adrian Mitchell deploring the way older people are shunted aside, reduced, and made to “retire” (“draw back”).  His call to action was “To hell with retirement...let them advance”.  If I were Ruler of the World that’s where I would start, by banning the word “retirement” and all the behaviours it encourages towards older people.

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Paul Cann is the keynote speaker at the Australian Association of Gerontology Annual Conference in Canberra from 2 to 4 November, 2016.

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About the Author

Paul Cann is Chief Executive of Age UK Oxfordshire.

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