Is the UK truly the best country to grow up and grow old in?
The House of Commons recently debated whether the UK is the best country to be an older person. Unfortunately we're far from that being a reality.
Our Chief Executive, Carole Easton, outlines five key issues where the UK is very far from being a world leader and the actions needed to improve the lives of older people in this country.
This week, the House of Commons debated whether the UK is the best country in the world to grow up and grow old in. While there is much to love and admire about our country, the harsh reality is that in many ways the UK is far from the best country to be an older person.
If we do want to achieve this honour, then we need to see change implemented urgently to improve the lives of people in older age and for the benefit of generations to follow.
As Carol Monaghan (Glasgow North West, SNP) pointed out in the debate, our recent The State of Ageing 2022 report reveals that one in five pensioners (more than 2 million people) is living in relative poverty – an increase of more than 200,000 in just 12 months.
The UK state pension is becoming increasingly inadequate and is one of the worst in Europe, providing just 58% of previous earnings from work – below the OECD average of 62%. To combat pension poverty, much more needs to be done to ensure older workers are not forced out of work prematurely. We also need to find ways to encourage greater uptake of Pension Credit by making the application process simpler and to remove stigma around claiming the benefit.
Many older people are supported by unpaid carers and older workers are also the most likely to have caring responsibilities. As Marion Fellows (Motherwell and Wishaw, SNP) pointed out, many individuals and organisations, including ourselves, were hoping that this Queen’s Speech would be the moment the government acted upon its 2019 manifesto promise and outlined Carers’ Leave legislation.
Indeed, we wanted the government to go further and introduce an Employment Bill which included flexible working for all employees from day one because this is the prime incentive older workers cite which would help them to remain in work. At present far too many older workers are being forced out of work permanently because of barriers and ageist attitudes.
This has been exacerbated by the pandemic with older workers the hardest hit group in terms of employment. The best place in the world to grow old is a country where older workers have the freedom to choose when to stop working, not a country where many have the choice taken out of their hands.
Whether the UK is the best place to grow old is very dependent on who you are. Evidence from our State of Ageing Report shows ageing in England is not a level playing field. Inequalities within older generations are some of the most extreme in society today and continue to deepen. The report found net non-pension wealth of the richest 20% of people doubled between 2002 and 2018, while that of the poorest 20% fell by 30%.
Where we live and our wealth, or lack of it, are massive factors in determining our futures. There are up to ten years difference in life expectancy and more than 17 years difference in time spent in good health without a disabling illness, based on our postcode and our bank balance. Such stark inequality must change. We urgently need co-ordinated action from across government to address health inequalities.
As Cherilyn Mackrory (Truro and Falmouth, Con) rightly pointed out during the debate, not all retired people want to live in retirement villages. But for an increasing number of older people, the house where they live is putting them in harm’s way. Almost one in five homes headed by someone aged 60 or older is in a condition that endangers their health.
Almost 9,000 people died in England and Wales last year because their homes were too cold. The number of older people renting is at an all-time high and the oldest renters, those aged 75 and over, spend almost half of their incomes on rent. Private rentals are also the most likely to fail the government’s own standard of a ‘decent home’. If we wish to be the best place for older people, then the UK’s housing stock needs to improve rapidly.
At Ageing Better, we want to see focused action across government to improve poor-quality housing stock and the introduction of regulations to ensure all new homes are fit for the future.
Protecting older people
The Health Secretary Sajid Javid closed the debate by saying the best places to grow old are the ones that keep people safe and implied the government had done this by rising to the challenges of the pandemic. But last month’s High Court ruling that the government acted unlawfully in discharging hospital patients into care homes without testing them for COVID-19 or isolating them first is a stark reminder of pernicious attitudes towards older and disabled people.
Thousands of older people were put directly in harm’s way at a time when they were most in need of protection. We will never be sure how many people died needlessly because the ONS figures on avoidable deaths do not include statistics for those over 75. To become the best place in the world to grow old, the UK must take steps to ensure that we never see a repeat of such an avoidable tragedy where such little value was placed on the lives of older people. The UK is currently not the best country in which to grow old.
If we are serious about becoming that country – and we should be – then the first step to achieving this would be the appointment of an independent Commissioner for Older People in England to protect the rights and wellbeing of all of us as we age. The best country to grow old is the country that listens to and values older people and does not push them to the margins of society.