Older people, not ‘the elderly’

Where should I start? At the end perhaps, with the recent statements in the news that older people self isolating will not only be at the end of the queue for ventilators, but excluded from them altogether. Sign your do not resuscitate form here. Yes, I know there are often sound medical reasons why CPR should not be used but it doesn’t inspire confidence when emotions are already running high.  Ironic really, given the annual winter statements about the number of delayed discharges from hospital. Or bed blocking to those who are insensitive to ageism— which is unlike the other isms where words really hurt. No beds to block now.

Back to the beginning, a little reminiscence— bear with me. Older people have a lot of memory to look back on. In 2002 when I was a councillor on Manchester City Council and had reached the end of my fifties I realised, mainly because of personal experience, that the services for older people managed by local government and the NHS did not address a key issue. There were debates at the time about an ageing population: what would the cost be and how was it to be afforded? The issue that wasn’t addressed was that policy for ageing should not only exist within the social care and health setting. My generation, born at the end of World War II and afterwards, was different in health, education and attitude from the previous generations of our parents and grandparents. This of course applies to all cohorts of the age demographic. How clever to call us boomers as an insult, along with much worse terms. Try looking up words for age and see how many positive ones can be found.

Provision had been shaped by a paternalistic view that sought to provide services for the most vulnerable older people. Even these tended to be delivered according to the resources of the providers and did not necessarily address real need. Looking around for where ageing sat in local government, it was found mainly within the adult services or social services/health portfolios. The assumption was that the only agency older people had was to be ill and need care.

Along with my colleague, Cllr Sue Cooley— who is still a councillor—, I decided to do something to change attitudes. We took the view that older people were active citizens and contributors to society and deserved to be involved in all decision making on services. Service design with us, not for us or to us. We called it Valuing Older People. From a personal point of view, I think that the UK is especially stratified when it comes to age, despite attempts to bring the generations together. Other than family groups there are few social spaces where more than two generations mix regularly.

It caused quite a stir especially when we published, in conjunction with the health sector, a guide to sexual health for the over 50s. Who would have thought it? People don’t stop having sex after 50. My colleagues were even more convinced when we mentioned that it was also the age group that tended to vote more often. Some years later the World Health Organisation developed the Age Friendly city and community theme; now there are over a thousand across the world. Manchester was the first UK city to get WHO recognition.

I prefer Valuing Older People because it is active, whereas Age Friendly sounds more passive, but I am a realist so Age Friendly it is.

Many strides have been made in local government around this agenda but state government lags behind. UK government that is. Scottish and Welsh governments are slightly ahead. When lobbied in 2011 the government said there was no need for a minister for older people because it was covered by DWP, Health and Equalities ministers. Precisely the point those lobbying were making. It meant that policy around ageing in society would be fragmented and would lack focus. The opposition were no better. The shadow portfolio was described in 2011 as care and older people, but in 2015, older people was subsumed and seemed to disappear altogether. Odd given that the opposition’s now previous leader is 70.

Underlying all this policy deficit is an attitude that older people add no value to society so their views can be ignored. This is partially compounded by— another ism— sexism, as most cohorts over 60 have a majority of women.  Look at some of the language around the Brexit debate. Older people are blocking opportunities for the young. We are stealing their futures by holding property and staying in houses that should be for the young. We can’t use modern technology. We can’t be employed because we can’t learn. Priority seating?  More like, move over Grandma I need your seat. Have you forgotten? You wrecked the world.

I understand not everyone has these views, but they are pervasive enough to affect how older people are regarded.We are seen as part of a group called the elderly. Not us but them. The term has been used more and more with the onset of the recent crisis. In reality, we are not them. We are you, only older.

The media has virtually erased us from the recent discussions and debates about the virus. On national media I have seen dads, mums, children, people taking pictures of their older relatives and one interview with Joan Bakewell. In the papers, I’ve seen one comment piece, published by The Guardian.

When were we interviewed about how we feel being in self isolation? Or being told that the NHS, that has helped us to live to an older age, is not for us anymore? This improved slightly after the first weeks of self isolation but not much. Now we can see the direct result of disregarding the real needs of older people in the scandal of care home provision. Many of us were aware for years that this was a Cinderella service both for users and staff. The current crisis has revealed this only too savagely.

When this crisis is over there needs to be a major review; not just of provision, insufficient as it is, but with a conscious awareness that ageism needs to be tackled seriously in all areas of policy making. We all get old, if we are lucky. So think on, as my gran would have said.

Val Stevens is a former deputy leader of Manchester City Council and deputy chair of Labour International. She is an honorary life member of Manchester City Council Age-Friendly Board and sits on Hebden Royd Town Council. She tweets at @valstevens24

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