Guest blog: What burden of ageing?

This guest blog was contributed by Rob Greig, Chief Executive at the National Development Team for Inclusion (NDTi)

The area of government policy that has continually depressed me the most (and I’m talking successive governments here) is that around older people and ageing. What we at NDTi call the ‘demographic dialogue’ of public policy and the media creates a culture whereby older people are seen as a problem and a burden on society.

Read almost anything from government policy, think tanks or the national press and you will see older people being described negatively. They are ‘bed blockers’ in hospitals, creating a ‘financial precipice’ in public finances and the cause of a pension system crisis that means younger people will have to work longer. Older people are portrayed as being the cause of problems that government and society have to address.

I beg to differ.  There are 3 fundamental flaws in this perception of older citizens:

  • It sees older people as primarily passive recipients of services provided by the state or wider society, denying or even discouraging their capacity to continue to give to the communities around them.
  • The service and cost modelling is substantially based on an assumption that we will do the same in the future as we have done in the past – rather than explore more innovative options that could change the financial parameters
  • It conveniently appears to forget the contributions that people have made to society, through their work, taxes, caring and creativity. Is it too old-fashioned to still think that society may have some obligation in the form of ‘pay-back’ time that should argue against using the language of burden?

I will put the third point to one side as it is primarily influenced by values and opinions and instead focus on the first two – and tell you about Ted.

Ted’s story

About 8 years ago I moved to live in a small village and on the first night checked out the local culture at the village pub.  Ted was propping up the bar. He’d lived in the village all his 80 years (though insisting that he’d lived elsewhere for 5 – subsequently found to be the hamlet 2 miles up the road).   I spent a thoroughly enjoyable evening learning from Ted about the village and the people in it.  No one had the knowledge he possessed. For the next 3 years, any debate about whether or not to go to the pub was influenced by the comment ‘Ted’ll probably be there’ – which encouraged a decision to go.  Put simply, he was good and interesting company, with many a tale to tell.

It wasn’t just me. Others in the village felt the same – which was why he was able to continue to live the life he wanted, on his own, in his own house (handily 50 yards from the pub). Different people helped him to plan and take his medication. There were always offers to take him to appointments, check he was OK, and help him home from the pub (sometimes in a wheelbarrow). In return, Ted provided wonderful company, a stream of anecdotes, legendary ‘ladies evenings’ (OK, he didn’t get sexism), occasional vegetables from his garden in the summer (though there was always a suggestion that some of his winning veg at the annual flower show started life at Sainsbury’s) and a major contribution to the village sense of community.

My point is this: the village hasn’t been the same since Ted died a few years ago.  I’m not the only person who doesn’t go to the pub so often given we won’t find him sitting there.  The pub’s takings have probably gone down, but more importantly people’s lives (including my ‘social capital’) are poorer. The community supported and encouraged Ted to give – which he did – and in return we gave back.  The cost to services was minimal until his last few months of serious illness. In many other places he would have been whipped into an extra care housing set up years before, at a cost to the tax-payer, a loss to the village, and certainly not in Ted’s best interests.

Public services didn’t achieve this – the community, with Ted, did it. Yet if both Ted and the village had bought into the notion that his ageing was turning him into a burden, is it not likely that a different outcome would have occurred? My recently deceased mother-in-law spent her last years determined not to be the burden on family and neighbours that she understood she was as a result of her ageing (we never did persuade her to stop reading the Daily Mail or watching Jeremy Kyle). As a result she saw services as the answer. That need not have been the case. She could have been a Ted, but instead allowed the ‘burden’ rhetoric to hold sway.

We all need to stop speaking about older people as a burden

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has recently published a study by NDTi (in partnership with Community Catalysts) on alternative support options for older people with high support needs. It explores the potential for mutuality and reciprocity between older people, their families, friends and communities.  One clear conclusion is that such initiatives cannot be service-driven, but have to be ‘bottom up’ – as it was for Ted. For that to become widespread, two important things need to happen.  Firstly, services should stop thinking that traditional services are always the answer. More importantly though, the Government, the media and all of us need to change the demographic dialogue – stop speaking of older people and ageing as a burden and a problem, and instead recognise and share people’s assets and contributions in ways that make us celebrate the age diversity of our communities.

Find out more about the NDTi and read their latest blogs 

Read more about ageing issues 


Author: Age UK

Age UK is dedicated to helping everyone make the most of later life. In the UK we help more than 7 million older people each year by providing advice, combating loneliness and enabling independence. Locally, we work as part of a network of independent charities which includes Age UK, Age Cymru, Age NI and Age Scotland and over 150 local Age UK partners in England and Wales.

7 thoughts on “Guest blog: What burden of ageing?”

  1. I couldn’t agree more with your main point Rob. I’ve often said that if this sort of language: ‘burden’, ‘ageing time-bomb’, even ‘silver tsunami’ (yes, I found that one in a company press release!) was used in connection with disabled people, there would be an outcry, even prosecutions. Disabled people have managed through long years of struggle, to outlaw this kind of stigmatisation. But when it comes to speaking about older people, this is somehow seen as acceptable. We should challenge this kind of rhetoric whenever we hear or see it. And as you say, it’s also based on poorly founded assumptions about how society is changing.

  2. well said.i know i have been made to feel by some that whatever i did over the years is of no importance. my memories are not always accurate i expect but am made to feel that i am living in the past whenever i mention a memory…. yet they refuse to see i have not much of a future left now. today was prime example. my nephew took me out to go have lunch at a cafe above some very picturesque locks. then look at an unusual church and museum i always wanted to see..i wasn’t feeling too good but thought going out would improve that as i had not been out much all didn’t and for the first time ever i found myself asking him to bring me home before we got as far as going into the museum. even he commented on that. made me realise that now im getting to a stage maybe where im not going to be making many more memories so not much to look forward if im not allowed to have my memories. what else is left? just an example of how some people feel towards us SC’s (senior citizens).
    on the other hand only the other day someone in her 30s i barely know really, told me she enjoyed our messages/emails etc cos she loves hearing my tales and anecdotes……my daughter n her followers on the other hand say i take too much time telling tales. put too much detail in thats not needed(I call it putting bones on the skeleton…no good without flesh cos its dead then…tales no good without details…points get missed as ive proved more than once.)
    yes i often feel im a burden.

  3. in Japan older relations (both living and dead) are revered – almost worshipped – as young japanese people realise that without parents and grandparents and their ancesters they would not be here – therefore older people are not a burden and are recognised as a very important part of life – like ALL older people over the world they are the forebears of what exists today – they have paid their dues to their countries their people and the rest of the world therefore in senior years everyone should be entitled to have a comfortable retirement before the grim reaper comes calling – David Cameron and his ilk should remember that without his (older) mother he would not even be here – so older people should be hallowed and not condemned

  4. An excellent article. While the average person will be expected to spend 40 plus years in gainful employment paying taxes without question because that is the way it should be,once they stop, they should feel guilty that they no longer pay taxes and somehow ashamed that they may be drawing more out nowadays than they are currently putting in and ignoring what they have put in, in the past is an unacceptable government thing.
    We all now Teds down the pubs in the villages. There is a respect shown – the sorry about the language or the mr. put in front of the name even though ‘Ted’ may have done little more than a slight frown on the first and nothing to encourage the second.
    Maybe the governments are really too far out of touch with what people are ok to accept. Maybe it is the other things that the people are unhappy to accept that they prefer not to think about and instead go for a misguided target.

  5. Nice points raised by you Rob. This makes me remember an interesting story about a successful businessman who was 70 years old and ran a thriving insurance business. Some body asked him when he would retire? to which he smiled and said that first let my mother retire. His mother was 101 years old and handled a very crucial department in his business, she was always in the office on time and worked long hours like every body else.
    Dr. Amar Bose, the famous American entrepreneur who created famous sound systems, is well into his 80s and still puts in 90 hours in a week.

    Moreover I think, elder people are a great asset to have, from whom we can learn so much and benefit, they are definitely not a burden.

  6. they are if fit and well and able to do as has been relayed above. trouble is, its not those older ones who are put in that category. how could anyone do so if they still work and earn??? its the rest. those who cant do this that are being classed as a burden. thinking of the fitter ones in with the less so is generalising and labeling ALL old people as no good anymore. cant really say that if they are pulling their weight still can you? but those who are frail, ill, disabled, maybe senile or with Alzheimer’s…. those are the ones classed as burdens. they’ve probably had a very hard life bringing up children, working hard, both at work and in the home. trying to make ends mothers and my age group for instance were one of the first to have the fore-runners of labour saving devices (not counting those patented in the Victorian era that only rich people could afford for their servants to use. ). it was much harder work than now. and i have no doubt a lot of it contributed to the muscular/skeletal conditions a lot of the elderly suffer from these days. rendering them in need of the care that seems to be at the root of todays thinking. if they need care then they are a burden…….in some peoples eyes…. same as those who are terminally ill, disabled, unemployed, as far as the coalition is concerned. a lot of work was done to stop age discrimination. all that has now been shattered. this type of thinking has come from the top… mainly… infiltrating peoples brains with their evil propaganda.

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