What advice would you give your younger self about preparing for growing old? ‘Learning how to bleed a radiator’ was one of the answers that came up at a recent ESRC Festival of Social Science event on ageing that we ran, with support of the International Longevity Centre and Independent Age. Many of the answers were more profound, but this one struck me because I seem to be stuck in a lifelong battle to gain control of my central heating system!
Reading the answers (see Figure 1 for themes and examples) highlights the importance of areas not traditionally the focus of ageing policy – what really matters to people are relationships, life experiences, and personal interests.
It often feels that we are all left to navigate the journey to older age on our own. Even in the fundamental areas, such as housing, health and finance, there are lots of important decisions to make. How do people make these decisions? What training and advice is provided, and is it enough?
We live in a world of increasing individualisation and personal choices, but I left the event wondering whether we should be providing more support in helping people prepare for later life.
Based on some of the latest statistics from ELSA, participants were also asked to highlight the big policy challenges for an ageing society. The most important agendas for me were as follows:
- Facilitating and recognising the involvement of older people in formal and informal volunteering and social action work, especially attracting non-traditional volunteers. There were also suggestions to provide greater respite, financial and emotional support to informal carers.
- Prevention and early intervention in health and social care. Finding ways of getting a little bit of help early, and encouraging people to take more responsibility for their own health. There was certainly recognition that the NHS faces fundamental challenges around how it configures itself to provide 21st century care – more integrated with social care, less compartmentalised, and more financially sustainable.
- A clearer focus on ensuring that the benefits of longer working lives can be shared by all, not just the most well-off. How do we enable everyone to change careers in different stages of our lives, retraining and re-educating ourselves? This will require more investment in adult education (both public and private). A lot of the focus is on physical capability of doing a job beyond traditional state pension age, but more needs to be done to support mental health and resilience to prevent an early exit from the workforce.
- Dealing with the issue that many people are asset-rich but cash-poor. Can people be helped to manage their assets better, and should there be bigger incentives for downsizing? There was concern about younger peoples’ ability to save for the future and what happens when those with greater reliance on defined contribution pension schemes(rather than more generous ‘final salary’ schemes) reach retirement.. There was clear recognition of the difficult challenge of balancing rewards for those who ‘do the right thing’ with the need to protect the most disadvantaged.
These help highlight areas where future research can help policy-makers. Britain is still a mid-table performer in tables of ageing – we think old age starts at a younger age than many European countries. There are many negative myths to bust – one of the most visible from ELSA has been around the data on sexual activity.
It doesn’t feel yet as if there is widespread demand for a society-level response to ageing, despite some examples some signs – such as Cameron’s challenge on Dementia and Andy Burnham’s declaration to make Manchester the most age-friendly city in the UK, and the role of artificial intelligence. I feel the debate is coming and our participants were up certainly up for it – are you?