Sally Hutchinson: We can’t ignore ageing population any more

BY any calculation, the figures in the House of Lords’ Ready for Ageing? report are dramatic – a 50 per cent rise in the number of people aged 65 plus and a doubling of the so called “oldest old”, those aged 85 plus, between 2010 and 2030.

But these figures aren’t new. We’ve known for many years that people in the UK are living longer which is, of course, cause for celebration. People aged 85 and over are now the fastest growing part of the population.

What is new is that this is the first time that senior policy makers have taken a detailed look at the impact of our ageing population on the UK and whether we, as a society, are equipped to deal with its changing needs.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

From early autumn they took vast amounts of written and oral evidence from experts in the field. Their depressing conclusion that the “Government is woefully underprepared for ageing” comes as no surprise to Age UK. While there have been piecemeal attempts to prepare for our changing demography, we are still lacking an overall joined-up plan of action.

We hope that this report will be a much-needed wake up call to the Government. We have to make major changes and make them soon if we are to adapt to our ageing population before it’s too late.

Let’s start with the NHS. Already over 60 per cent of hospital beds are occupied by people over the age of 65. That percentage is only likely to grow as more of us live longer.

Yet we know that most doctors don’t get enough training in how to care for older people effectively or in understanding the impact of age and ageing on the body. This, surely, has to change if the NHS is to run efficiently and cost effectively.

Employers and recruiters’ attitudes to older workers need a dramatic overhaul too. With a rising state pension age, more of us will need and want to work longer. Yet, despite a population aged 50 and over that is fitter, more energetic and engaged than ever before, age discrimination, based on out of date stereotypes, is still rife in the workplace.

Statistics show that unemployed people aged 50 and over find it harder than any other age group to get back into work.

A new study found that a fifth of businesses still have a fixed retirement age, despite the abolition of the default retirement age 18 months ago. The Supreme Court ruled last year that in spite of the change in the law, employers are still entitled to set their own retirement age if they can justify it on specific grounds.

In the private sector too, many businesses continue to overlook the opportunities presented by older consumers. Yet the “grey pound” is now worth more than £121bn a year.

An ageing population presents a real chance for companies to develop new products in areas ranging from financial services to leisure for older people who are currently too often excluded.

We, as individuals, also have our part to play. Only 36 per cent of people currently contribute to a private or workplace pension. The introduction of auto-enrolment will increase that figure, but the question of whether each of us is saving enough will remain.

We can no longer afford to put our heads in the sand, preferring not to prepare for the future. It is incumbent on each of us to try to save as best we can for our retirement and prepare for potential future care needs.

For too long as a society we have chosen to ignore the glaring fact 
that many of us are living well beyond the biblical three score years and ten and so need to rethink, both individually and collectively, our attitudes to retirement, pensions, housing and long term health.

As the House of Lords report makes clear, we cannot afford to ignore it any longer.

• Sally Hutchinson is chief officer at Age UK York.