Disability and ageing – time to think outside our silos?
As Disability History Month begins, it's important to think about why older people with impairments are rarely considered ‘Disabled’.
In the first of our blogs marking UK Disability History Month (UKDHM), Ann Leahy (Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at Maynooth University) argues that we need to address disablism as well as ageism when formulating public policy on ageing.
Issues of ‘disability’ and ‘ageing’ are usually approached separately in activism, theorising, service design and policymaking. But there are many paradoxes inherent in this, given that disabled people age and that most people will experience disability if they live long enough.
The likelihood of experiencing disability becomes greater the older we get, which is important not least because the number of people worldwide aged 80 and over is predicted to triple between 2020 and 2050. Older people constitute a significant proportion of the overall population of Disabled people in most countries, and in the UK adults over state pension age are twice as likely to be disabled compared to working age adults (42% compared to 21%).
However, people experiencing impairment in older age are rarely considered ‘Disabled’. One consequence of the separate or siloed thinking on ageing and disability is that human rights approaches to disability tend not to be applied to disability experienced in older age. As the former UN Special Rapporteur on Disability has highlighted, older people experiencing impairment (or with long-term care needs) are perceived, not as people with rights, but as ‘mere beneficiaries of care and welfare’.
We, therefore, need to fundamentally change our thinking and appreciate that it is possible to live lives of connection, value and meaning with disability in later life.
Anticipated costs of ageing populations have led to a major policy focus on active or healthy ageing. This aims to delay disability for as long as possible, often emphasising what individuals can do to preserve health and functioning. The reasons for wanting to maintain functioning for as long as possible are obvious for individuals and for societies. But we must ask ourselves if efforts aimed at preventing disability and encouraging healthy lifestyles (however important they are) risk inadvertently overlooking, or even marginalising, older people who do experience disability.
We therefore need to fundamentally change our thinking and appreciate that it is possible to live lives of connection, value and meaning with disability in later life. And we need to ensure that public policies promote and enable ‘ageing well’ with disability – whether first experienced in early or later life.
It’s also interesting to consider that people with long-term disability are living longer and that a significant demographic shift is taking place amongst them. A report from DWP indicates that in the UK 79% of Disabled people who are over the state pension age first experienced impairment after the age of 50, which means that a significant minority (about one in five) of older people who experience disability have done so since before the age of 50.
This fact further highlights the need for greater links between public policy frameworks on disability and on ageing. People ageing with a long-standing disability often age with a legacy of disadvantage and discrimination associated with high unemployment levels, low levels of marriage or cohabiting, and low incomes and educational attainment. However, policy frameworks are not well developed for this group.
In a study with older people experiencing disability, which included people first experiencing disability in older age as well as people ageing with long-standing disability, I found that both groups experience barriers in everyday life that affect Disabled people of all ages. They can, for example, experience disability due to inaccessible homes, streets, or public transport. More surprising perhaps (given that ‘disability’ in older age is often considered just a part of ageing rather than ‘real’ disability) is how they sometimes perceive themselves to be excluded in interactions with others in various social settings. They often attribute this to their use of appliances like wheelchairs or walkers/rollators. It means that, paradoxically, older Disabled people can experience disablism even when not considered to be ‘Disabled’.
I was delighted to meet with staff of the Centre for Ageing Better recently to discuss these issues. Ageing Better’s work to confront ageism and build an age-friendly society is vital. Alongside this, there is scope to develop collective responses that highlight how societies fail to value older people and Disabled people in similar ways. As a society we must reject disablism, as well as ageism, wherever encountered. I suggest too that lived experiences of disability in later life (in all their diversity) must inform public policies on ageing to a much greater degree than is currently the case.
The views and opinions expressed in this guest blog are those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the policy or positions of the Centre for Ageing Better.
Ann Leahy, Post-doctoral Researcher in Sociology, ERC Project DANCING, Assisting Living and Learning (ALL) Institute, School of Law and Criminology, Maynooth University, Ireland. She is the author of, ‘Disability and Ageing: Towards a Critical Perspective’, published by Policy Press. The book features in the Ageing in a Global Context series in association with the British Society of Gerontology.