Opportunities of ageing: Back to the future

Professor Judith Phillips, Professor of Gerontology and Deputy Principal (Research), University of Stirling

An older woman in a yellow jumper stands in the doorway of her home. Image courtesy of the Centre for Ageing Better.

Professor Judith Phillips discusses the opportunities and challenges associated with ageing and explores three priority areas the next UK Government should consider. 

A long, healthy and good quality of life is something to be celebrated, yet we have stalled in the longevity stakes. We are spending more time in poorer health as we age with some older populations more disadvantaged than others, living in poorer housing, facing ageist systems and attitudes and accumulated disadvantage. We are failing to take advantage of the opportunities of ageing for example through employment of older workers.

Older people are more likely to vote than young people with age rather than class dictating alliance to particular parties. Addressing the issues associated with ageing and later life (such as social care) are critical for all parties in the run up to the general election.

If parties are to tackle some of the challenging issues associated with ageing there is a need to focus on the lifecourse not just on later life with longevity proofing everything the government does. Such an approach is also important if we want to follow a preventative agenda in health and social care recommended by the Chief Medical Officers 2023 annual report: Health in an Ageing Society. A preventative lifecourse model requires what could be termed, a ‘Back to the future’ approach – a cross governmental programme akin to that taken under the Blair governments between 1997 to 2007 in the implementation of the Strategy for Older People across government assessments and commitments.

There are 3 areas where there are opportunities for government to make a difference:

Housing and age friendly neighbourhoods

The key issue for government is how to expand the quality and quantity of housing to offer more choice to older people, whether that is through new build specialist housing or renovation in mainstream housing, to enable ageing in the right place. A wider range of age friendly options that older people wanted and could afford to buy, or rent would save millions for the NHS and social care. We need to build more age-appropriate housing, homes that are designed for healthy cognitive living ensuring people are well connected to their local communities and with easy access to all services including health and care. The age and dementia friendly design of our towns and neighbourhoods utilising the latest smart technologies for energy efficiency and accessibility is central to this mission drawing in cross governmental departments. Every planning authority in England for example should produce an Older Peoples Housing strategy similar to that in Scotland, identifying the estimated level of required supply of age-exclusive housing and how this will be delivered.

Tackling ageism

Stereotypes and images of ageing and later life far too often portray older people as frail and lonely or as extraordinary individuals, masking the true and diverse picture of everyday life experiences of older people.

Negative stereotypes about old age and ageing run throughout society – in government, the media and advertising. Reframing ageing as an opportunity acknowledging the contribution of older people to every aspect of life and to younger generations is critical (as older workers and entrepreneurs increasing productivity; as carers supporting the social care system; as consumers in building an ageing market; as placemakers rejuvenating the high street; as citizens in our political decision making; and taking actions on climate change agendas).

Government is seen as having a key role to play in reframing ageing, using preferred terminology, not fuelling intergenerational conflict and beginning a longer-term narrative to reframe ageing and later life with more positive narratives. This needs to be backed up by policies for example, to help workers over 50 and carers return to or remain in the labour market, while Supporting Healthy Ageing at Work.

Addressing inequalities in later life and in particular narrowing the gap in the experiences of the richest and the poorest

The diversity and divide in how we experience ageing, with the poorest living shorter lives and often in bad health reflects an accumulation of disadvantage across the lifecourse. People from ethnic minority backgrounds fare the worst with the gap widening across the population between those in good health and wealth and those without, exacerbated by spatial inequality between north and south of the UK. With the gap increasing there is a need for a joined up approach across government and initiatives akin to the Welsh Governments Older Peoples’ Commissioner, an independent advocate for older people in policy making. Targeting those in greatest need, addressing inequality across the lifecourse with a strategy to tackle later life inequality, particularly in terms of pensions through creating lifelong incomes by encouraging savings alongside pensions, and MOTs at mid-life to enable people to assess where they are financially and health wise as they age, are some examples.

The Healthy Ageing Challenge (2019-2024) took a mission-oriented approach to tackling inequality through initiatives that brought business together to develop an ageing market with products and services targeted at those with most to gain. It will be important to build on and sustain growth in sectors such as housing, care and work with funding streams that bring through evidence-based innovation and scale up.

Taking in mind these 3 policy areas there is added value to wider cross government challenges such as climate change/net zero (age and eco housing; energy efficiency and fuel poverty amongst older people); productivity (through addressing hidden health issues in the workplace and acknowledging the contribution of older workers) and social care (addressing life course disadvantage; focusing on the link between social care and housing and importance of preventative health measures earlier in life).

Action on these three areas needs co production with older people, private, public and 3rd sectors working together going beyond a strategy to tangible action to enhance the quality of life of older people as well as society in general.

Professor Judith Phillips has a background in geography, gerontology and social work. She is Deputy Principal (Research) at the University of Stirling and Research Director for the UKRI Healthy Ageing Challenge. Her research focuses on the environmental and social aspects of ageing.

This post first appeared on the Academy of Social Sciences blog.

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