Older people deserve respect and relief from the pressures and fears of declining physical and mental powers, say our readers
I have great respect for Simon Jenkins – he often cuts through the codswallop that often poses as journalism today. Unfortunately, he falls into the trap of Conservative thinking on social care (We all want to live longer, but someone must pay, 1 June). It does seem reasonable that those who have built up assets in their lifetimes should fund their own social care in old age, but this misses the whole point of a progressive system of taxation. Illness, frailty, misfortune can happen to anyone, rich or poor. It’s true the better off tend to live longer, with better health, but that does not mean that individuals cannot be struck down with early-onset dementia, or another devastating condition. Why should those families suffer more than other families whose progenitors were fortunate enough to enjoy perfect health? Progressive taxation, either on wealth or on income, spreads the risk and ensures that the rich and not-quite-so-rich pay their fair share towards the collective health of the nation. An inheritance tax too, properly graduated, should be part of the taxation mix, funding excellent state care for wealthy and poor alike, whatever their individual circumstances.
• Simon Jenkins is right, someone has to pay. But the need for care is a lottery and it falls unfairly on the 10% of those families whose relatives develop dementia, sometimes before they are even considered old. My relative developed Lewy body dementia at the age of 58. If he’d had cancer, he would have been cared for, but his family had to contribute to his nursing home care – after 12 years of his wife providing 24-hour care for free, with a devastating effect on her own life and freedom. Jenkins’s reference to past family situations belies the fact that women were the carers and they are now expected to work outside the home. The amount needed to provide care nationally is not so great in a rich country that we can’t all contribute to care for the sick and vulnerable, whatever their family wealth, just as we do for sick children.
• Why should families be financially responsible for people suffering from dementia, but for any physical disease, such as cancer, then the NHS will pick up the bill? In the original formulation of the welfare state, “from cradle to the grave”, was it clear that only physical illness and not mental decline would be covered by the NHS? How can we be selective about who receives free care and what has to be paid for? This was never the intention.
• Suzanne Moore is right that we need to redefine old age (G2, 1 June). Many young people today could live to 100. This will affect every aspect of their lives – their finances, careers and relationships. So we need to think differently about how we grow old and recognise that a traditional retirement of leisure and inactivity should no longer be the life goal that it once was. This shouldn’t be seen as a problem for society, rather a question and an opportunity. How, as we live longer, can we ensure people enjoy long, healthy and productive lives?
Support for planning and preparation is key. For example, encouraging people to save adequately for later life, supporting them to age healthily and ensuring that they can work and enjoy meaningful employment – switching or returning to careers if they wish. There is huge value to be had by opening up opportunities for people in later years to contribute to their communities through both structured and informal volunteering opportunities. As well as ensuring a better quality of later life, all these things would generate significant social and economic value for society, and in turn help to combat issues such as loneliness and isolation.
It isn’t too late; but we do need to act quickly and collectively now if we are to help our younger generations to realise the huge benefits, rather than the burden, that our longer lives might bring.
Dr Anna Dixon
Chief executive, Centre for Ageing Better
• So Simon Jenkins thinks pensioners will be economically inactive for half a lifetime, living off but not contributing to the common weal? I am one such pensioner, retired but not yet 66, so too young for the state pension. I pay income tax from my NHS pension. I support two adult children, using my lump sum to buy a flat for one and paying the rent on a flat for the other. I have energetically assisted their efforts to find work. In fact, I have been considerably more successful in this venture than the local job centre. I supported two nonagenarian parents until February, when one died after a decline lasting 10 years. The other continues in the community, supported by my siblings and myself. I volunteer in an inner-city school with Beanstalk, the charity which provides voluntary reading help. My husband works three evenings a week at the local swimming club, again as a volunteer, and is active in a local rural housing association. Inactive? It certainly doesn’t feel that way. In fact, I think we are propping up the state in a number of respects. Cut us some slack.
Solihull, West Midlands
• I am 71 and I claim the right to be old (Is 80 the new 50? Call for rethink on language of ageing, 31 May). This is despite the fact that I do voluntary work requiring some brainpower. It is ridiculous to deny that, with worsening memories, my contemporaries and I increasingly refer to familiar objects as “whatsits” and forget what we’ve recently read; that some of us struggle to hear each other across restaurant tables or on mobile devices rather than (so last-century) landlines; that we find it harder to learn new skills and feel defeated by these ever-changing devices; that we develop arthritis, sustain fractures, suffer all kinds of ills more likely to occur with advancing age. To sweeten biological reality with positive terminology disempowers and demoralises old people rather than the reverse, making them feel slow and stupid for failing to fulfil expectations that they will be as quick mentally and physically as they were half a century before.
We should, perhaps, also be concerned that this rhetoric will facilitate the eventual abolition of a formal retirement age, with the state pension delayed until a DWP assessment confirms the onset of a sufficient degree of decrepitude.
Patricia de Wolfe
• In two weeks’ time I shall be 76. I am fortunate indeed to be fit and healthy, mainly because I actively keep myself fit and healthy. So in my case, my answer to the question “Is 80 the new 50?” is definitely a loud yes. But keeping fit and healthy has been a conscious and determined process since early retirement at 55. It involves regular exercise, (running a lot of 10ks), a balanced but enjoyable diet with plenty of treats, and perhaps most of all, a busy life of volunteering. I recommend this regime to anyone over the age of 50.