Which City?

Sunday, 9 February 2014

There Is No Future In A Battle Between Young and Old

I have been seriously bothered today by the volume of tweets about disparities in public spending between older and younger people. I am not denying the challenge around this, but I am challenging the language used to have the debate.

I am sensitised to this subject from hearing a passionate and insightful presentation by Philly Hare of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation  about negative images and language in relation to ageing and specifically linked to dementia. Philly was able to draw the attention of the Yorkshire and Humberside Dementia Action Alliance at its conference in York on Friday to a wide range of references which shocked most of us in their portrayal of ageing and dementia as apocalyptic events which we must fight or fear.

Nobody would deny that age brings challenges for all of us in terms of health, both physical and mental, and for many of us dramatic falls in our income. At the end of life we may face some years in need of support or intensive social or health care, and this will have an impact on our families and those caring for us.

Neither would I deny that the increase in many countries and areas of the UK in the proportion of older people will increase the call on the costs of health and social care. There is no benefit in having our heads in the sand about this - we must work out the fairest ways to spread the cost of care fairly, and the Care Bill is this government's attempt to do that. I am not interested here in debating the proposed changes, my purpose is to point out that setting groups in our society at one another's throats is not helpful in managing the fair distribution of resources.

The frequency of belligerent, militaristic and catastrophic references - the inter-generational battle or  conflict, the time bomb or tsunami of ageing and/or dementia - does a number of seriously damaging things. First, it creates a sense of blame which is attributed to older people ('young people suffering from the crisis inherited from their elders'), which leads to discrimination against older people, which leads to disinvestment/de-prioritisation of their needs.

Why should we couch the need for more health and social care resources in the elderly as a 'battle' for public spending with the young? Where is the benefit in encouraging young people to believe that resources are being taken away from them by the old? The truth is we all get old (if we are lucky) and we experience greater need for health and social care as we age. Young people use the bulk of our investment in education, which is absolutely as it should be.

Our problem arises not because age groups are in competition with one another for resources per se , but because the number of older people is growing at a rate which is beyond the capacity of the working population to pay for. So younger people see themselves working longer, paying more taxes to support the growth of the ageing population.

What is missing from this characterization is any positive perspective which considers how generations can support one another to share public resources. From a narrow middle class perspective we seem to have abandoned the opportunity to generate capacity and resources within the wider family network. Our post-war expectations were for increasing affluence based on education and mobility - factors which feed the drive of the young towards cities in search of work, separating them from wider family support. If the working family can afford the costs of childcare, transport and housing, each individual family household can afford its isolation. Our economic policy is still predicated on this post war dream. But when these costs become too high, people have to consider sharing - particularly childcare and housing- and the family is the place that many people would start.

In my parents' generation born in the 1920s and brought up in a deep depression, nobody in the working classes would have expected to own their home, or even to live in a single family house. Sharing with family or lodging with neighbours was the norm. As it was for the very rich, ironically - with older family members staying on to live with the son who inherited. For families from different cultures the need for larger homes is driven by expectations that three or even four generations might live together permanently, sharing childcare, incomes and household tasks.

The age time bomb is real, but its language is dramatic and divisive - it is explicit in labelling older people as a burden, a threat or a problem to be solved. We cannot create a positive future for everybody in the context of this language. We need to recognise the value and opportunities which older people bring in terms of wisdom, experience, skills and we need to support them to remain active contributors to society for as long as they can. We need to challenge people as they age to think about how they can not only support themselves but offer support to others. This might be by sharing housing, investing their pensions in social projects, passing on skills, providing childcare.

As for fighting for resources for the young, we can adjust our language and  think creatively about how resources can be grown, shared and expanded to provide for everybody. Bringing the generations together is a more positive route to solving resource issues than fighting over a shrinking pot. What can older people do to support families with young children, to babysit, to volunteer in nurseries and schools, to support the teaching of basic skills, to offer a room in their home, a place at their dining table?

In the course of my work with people with dementia I have been inspired by those people who have been able to continue to make a contribution to society, using their skills for as long as they had them - people with dementia who may experience confusion and memory loss, but who can still teach music, painting, foreign languages to other people with those skills which define them. Before listening to Philly Hare on Friday I heard Eileen and Richard talk movingly about their experiences following Eileen's diagnosis of dementia. They were honest about the bad times - dementia can be an enemy - but positive about the good times. Above all, they continued to treat and respect one another as people, not perfect but full of hope and possibility.

We are all either old now or on the path to being old - we don't need any fighting along the way.