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23 July 2001

Grey panthers start to growl

The government is waking up to the purchasing power and electoral influence of Britain's pensioners.

By Judy Hirst

I have seen the future, and it’s old. Or, at the very least, getting on a bit. The evidence is all around us. Who bothered to vote in the last election, even if it did mean getting a lift to the polling booth or filling out a postal ballot? Nearly 80 per cent of the over-65s cast their votes on 7 June, compared with just 38 per cent of 18- 24-year-olds and 45 per cent of the 25-34 age group. Now that pensioners number 11 million in Britain and make up at least a quarter of the electorate in most industrialised countries, psephologists are sitting up and taking notice. Grey voters, they say, have acquired political clout.

Apparently, they have economic muscle, too. The over-50s control 80 per cent of the nation’s wealth, something the service sector is belatedly waking up to. Ageing baby boomers and empty nesters – the “young old” – are more interested in facelifts than stairlifts. They want holidays, health farms, home gyms and, for those who can’t cope so well, some discreet assistance to help them get around.

Old people are everywhere. By 2021, the over-60s will, for the first time, outnumber twenty- and thirtysomethings. By 2005, the number of octogenarians – the fastest-growing population group – will have increased by 10 per cent.

In the United States, there is the 35 million-strong American Association of Retired People, a Gap-clad, baseball-capped force to be reckoned with, representing a quarter of all registered voters. In the European Union, there are Germany’s Grey Panthers, Denmark’s C Team and Britain’s Better Government for Older People programme. Quangos on ageing, senior citizens’ advisory boards, “elder councils” and pensioners’ groups have proliferated across Europe, all agitating for older people’s rights.

So are we on the eve of a new geron- tocracy, with handrails, hearing aids and enlarged print in every boardroom, and affirmative action for all over-65s? Sadly, while the headline-grabbing minority may enjoy bungee-jumping and marathon running well into their Woodbine-smoking dotage, for the one in five pensioners who needs the attention of our care services, it’s a different, often wretched, story.

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As the King’s Fund, a health think-tank, has reported, care services for the elderly are falling apart. The majority are run by unqualified staff on subsistence pay, with volunteers and family members left to pick up the pieces. In Birmingham, as in many other cities, up to a quarter of hospital beds will soon be “blocked” by older people who are fit for discharge but cannot leave because there is no social services money to pay for their aftercare. Elsewhere, according to the Carers National Association, elderly patients are being discharged far too quickly, in the rush to cut down NHS waiting lists. More than 40 per cent of them end up back in hospital within two months.

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According to the King’s Fund report, at least £700m extra a year is needed to bring Britain’s decrepit care system up to humane standards. However, that’s clearly way too much for a government that has thrown out its own royal commission’s recommendation that long-term personal care for the elderly is made free. Toileting, bathing and dressing old folk who can’t do it for themselves is, apparently, a matter for the private, not the public, purse. And it is far too expensive for ministers who – until pensioners’ organisations gave them a good drubbing – thought that 75p was a perfectly adequate pension rise.

Indeed, barely months into its second term of office, new Labour has made clear, through its plans for three-yearly MOTs for the recipients of incapacity benefit, that it finds the whole idea of paying for inactive, non-productive members of society increasingly insupportable: especially when the disability budget costs the Exchequer £7bn a year. With its New Deal for the over-50s, pensioner tax credits and private pension plans, the focus is firmly on planning for a financially self-sufficient old age.

Lifelong learning and a fun-packed retirement are all well and good, says Hilde Rosenmayr, the chairperson of the United Nations Vienna NGO committee on ageing. But when the impetus to get pensioners out of their armchairs and into civic life is driven largely by economics – by governments concerned at the ballooning costs of elderly dependency, and a shortage of shelf-stackers at B&Q – the results are dubious indeed. “We should respect the contribution made by older people, irrespective of their economic usefulness,” says Rosenmayr, herself a pensioner.

In the mid-1980s, under a particularly cruel precursor to The Weakest Link, millions of 50-plus employees were told: you are too old, goodbye. A job release scheme was introduced to rid the labour market of employees who were considered over the hill. However, times and economic climates change. In recent years, says the social policy professor Alan Walker, governments have realised that their early retirement policies went too far. The loss of tax revenue, coupled with a shortage of young people entering the labour market, has led to a U-turn in EU policy. All member states are now meant to comply with anti-age discrimination rules.

But for how long? Walker, who heads the Economic and Social Research Council’s Growing Older Programme, has noted that underlying each twist and turn of official policy on ageing is a “demography of despair”, an outlook that sees greater longevity not as a triumph for science and civilisation, but as an impending, semi-apocalyptic disaster. Hence all the negative talk about time bombs, explosions and the huge “burden” of caring for the elderly.

In fact, the only disaster is the refusal of modern governments to plan, prepare and, above all, pay for the care needs of their older citizens. Instead, in time-honoured fashion, the problem is thrown back at old people themselves: anything to avoid forking out for the services that the elderly might need. Get fitter, save harder, learn more, keep active, the caring professionals exhort. For grannies and grandads with – God forbid – time on their hands, there is the National Experience Corps, Gordon Brown’s new £120m geriatric volunteer army, where they can “pass on their parenting skills to young families or help out with sport in schools”.

Meanwhile, an entire futurology industry has evolved, devoted to pinpointing markets for third- and fourth-age products. The typical social services department takes weeks, if not months, to deliver simple aids and adaptations to disabled, housebound old people. Not infrequently, the client has passed away by the time the fitting arrives for them to have a bath.

For “discerning older consumers”, the Design Council is developing a stylish catalogue of moving handrails, heat- sensitive cinetrackers and intelligent prosthetics.

But what of those older people – the vast majority – who could no more afford these gismos than a holiday in Mauritius, and for whom discerning consumption means counting your pennies in the queue for the checkout? As a recent Help the Aged poll showed, healthy, active ageing is, for many, still a media-fuelled myth. No one has yet invented a cure for dementia, Parkinson’s, osteoporosis, cancer, or all the other diseases of old age. Half of all the over-75s have a debilitating illness, and one in five of the over-80s is mentally impaired.

For these old people, the gift of longevity and “grey power” is something of an empty prize. They have yet to taste the brave new world of empowered senior citizenship. They are largely excluded from the forums and symposia that debate ageing on an international stage. Come election time, they may still vote, mainly because they have always done so, or as a rare chance to be visible; but what do they get in return? Not much, unless you count a few quid on the pension here, or a paltry winter fuel payment there. According to the pollsters, old people are too heterogeneous a bunch to vote as an interest group. But maybe they should. Maybe it’s time they stood up and fought for the right to grow old as they wish, gracefully or disgracefully, actively or doing nothing much at all. Perhaps that, very slowly, is the way to go.