December 11, 2009

UK: An elderly population can be an asset – if we act now

. LEEDS, England / The Yorkshire Post / Opinion / December 11, 2009 By Richard Kemp NEXT month, I will have a life- changing event. For the first time I will become a grandpa. Like all such events it gives you the opportunity to take stock and think what you want to achieve and do with the rest of your life. Like everyone else, I hope that when I come to retire in 10 years I will be able to have at least 20 years of good health with enough money in my pocket to enjoy my time off, the company of my lovely wife and the joy of grandchildren (if there are more than one). Photo courtesy: The Liverpool Daily Post But this will not be the reality of life for most people. There will be three million additional people over the age of 65 in 15 years' time. At some stage at least half of us (yes, it includes me as well) will need social or health support. Some will need help only briefly but many intensively. As the number of elderly increases, so, too, do the number of people who are frail in either mind or body. Too many people have not saved or could not save enough for retirement. For them, the last 20 years of their life will be one of penny-pinching and making do. The massive increase in the number of elderly presents both an opportunity and challenge for society. Living longer should be a good thing. Let's celebrate the fact, let's look at the rich gifts of time, experience and patience that older people can give to society either formally through volunteering and "committee" work or informally as input into strong families and strong communities. However, unless we face up to the challenges of the increase, we will not take the benefit of the opportunities. None of the political parties nationally is really looking in detail at the situation. The reason for this is simple to ascertain – the cost. If we are to carry on doing things the way we do now, then we will need to be spending at least another £23bn a year in real terms on this by 2025. In reality, it should be more. We already know that we are not spending enough and that services are clearly slipping behind demand. If this presents a challenge for politicians, it is not a challenge that we alone should bear. This is a problem for everyone in society. My Mum is now 89. Fortunately, she still is in reasonable health and is fiercely independent. She has had three bad "dos" in hospital over the years but in true elderly spirit tells me when I ask how she is: "Mustn't grumble." I do not believe that it is the state that should be primarily responsible for looking after Mum. That is the job of my sister and me. The job of the state is to help us help her for as long as we can and then for us to help the state help her when we cannot. So the same challenge must go out to four different groups of people; the Government, local and national; the voluntary sector who both represent and provide services to the elderly; the private sector who increasingly provide residential care and other services; and ultimately the citizen. The challenges are clear: How much can we pay and how much should we pay for the increased number of people? What should be the balance between taxation and income assessment? Can we devise new products or services (particularly using ICT) to change the way we do things? Can we create new relationships between the four sets of partners to fill the gaps and expand provision? And those challenges must be debated now and debated by everyone. At the moment, too many promises are being made by some politicians for the amount that they are prepared to put in to the pot. If we are not to put £23bn in, we need to change the expectations that people have from the Government, find new ways of doing things or find new sources of money. I am not a pessimist in this matter. I believe that there are ways in which we can change the "kit, cash and culture" of social and health care to do things better. I do believe that most people do want to look after the elderly in their family and their community. I do believe that most elderly people want to be as independent for as long as they can. But the debate must be had. In the meantime, beware of politicians making uncosted promises before an election that they cannot deliver after one. In the meantime, I will continue to be incredibly nice to my own three children – just to be on the safe side. [rc] Richard Kemp is a Lib Dem councillor in Liverpool and deputy chairman of the Local Government Association. ©2009 Johnston Press Digital Publishing