This week’s blog from our General Election Series examines how everyone in later life should have opportunities to enjoy life and feel well.
The dominant story on older people’s health is often rooted in the view that not feeling unwell is all you can expect as you age. Whatever happened to wanting to feel well?
This may only be a minor linguistic distinction, but it is an important one. This popular perception is partly reflective of how health and care services operate, typically geared to responding to crisis.
Assumption that older age = poor health
But there is also a general fatalism in what health and wellbeing in later life means to people. The likelihood of remaining active and living well into late old age is often underestimated, while the assumption that longer average life expectancy is automatically linked to being in poor health is overestimated.
Only a minority of people over 85 live with frailty. 50% of people over 75 report living with no life-limiting long-term condition. Over 70% of women diagnosed with breast cancer in their 70s live for five years or more.
Reverse those figures and you could still paint a worrying picture of older people’s health, but the assumption that older age = poor health is a profoundly negative one and not always borne out by the facts.
Challenges older people face
This is not to be naïve about the challenges many older people face. Around 10 per cent of people over 65 are experiencing chronic loneliness at any given time. There is growing evidence of the long-term health impact of loneliness, not only in terms of mental wellbeing but also risk of dementia and shorter lives.
Frequently disconnected from local communities and public spaces, older people can find it incredibly difficult to remain active and exercise. This in part explains why the numbers of people doing the recommended amount of physical activity plummets between the ages of 65 and 75.
As with any stage of life, failing to stay active will have a severe impact your health and wellbeing. However, inactivity can put older people at a higher risk of falls and can affect their confidence, leading to higher risk of isolation and reduced ability to manage other health conditions.
A healthier, more active later life
Seeing the idea of Feeling Well in this broader context is vital to securing a healthier, more active later life, regardless of your overall capabilities. otherwise, too many people will continue to think that maintaining a minimal quality of life for older people is acceptable. it is not.
Given the huge diversity of needs and circumstances in the 12 million people aged 65 to over 100 years, society needs find a positive, proactive approach to older people’s health.
One based not on assumptions about what a person cannot do, but what they can. For a large number of older people, there is no reason at all to doubt that they can still do everything they’ve always done, and many new things beside.
Society needs to adjust to this and concentrate on removing the barriers that prevent activity and participation. This will mean health and care services with a higher expectation of what’s possible.
It will also mean every part of our communities actively involving all age groups in local activities, public spaces and services.
For public policy, it will mean undertaking approaches that are driven by the idea of maximising wellbeing while aggressively attacking the challenges to feeling well.
On 7 May 2015, we will all vote to choose our future MPs and the next UK Government. It’s vital that once elected our politicians act on the issues that affect older people, today and tomorrow. Ask your Prospective Parliamentary Candidates to become Age Champions