Old chestnut about elderly being a national burden untrue

Fri, May 4, 2012, 01:00

LONDON LETTER:BRITAIN’S ELDERLY are an economic advantage; not a burden, say researchers. The predictions are woeful. Like other western countries, Britain is ageing. The National Health Service will be left unable to cope, while younger generations will be left in penury paying the bill.

Not so, according to new research from University College London (UCL), which argues that the elderly are already an economic plus – and will become more so with the passing years.

Two years ago, says UCL’s school of pharmacy, over-65s added £40 billion in new wealth to the British economy; and that figure will have jumped to £80 billion by 2030.

The signs, it says, are already evident. Recent figures from the office of national statistics show that 358,000 more over-65s are at work than a decade ago.

Meanwhile, the number of late-stage entrepreneurs is rising dramatically. Last year, there were 332,000 self-employed over-65s, a rise of more than 100,000.

The growth makes the silver-aged the fastest-growing category to strike out on their own, even if they suffer more difficulties than their younger equals in getting bank loans.

Last April mandatory retirement at 65 was abolished, with caveats, although the appropriate justification for companies being able to order it anyway was left vague.

In recent weeks the UK’s supreme court offered an important ruling, which may have rowed back on the effect the change will have in offices and factories.

Rejecting a solicitor’s argument that he was unfairly retired, the judges found that his firm had grounds based upon its need to plan recruitment and promotion.

For some, of course, the decision to work is not just a boon offered by better health; rather it’s a reflection of the damage suffered by pensions.

Nevertheless, the school of pharmacy accentuates the positive, predicting a 10 per cent rise in productivity both from the greater numbers at work and a fall in the number of years of average ill health.

“Neither better survival in later life nor greater numbers of older people should be unfairly blamed for economic and other difficulties that stem from other causes, such as excessive community-wide consumption levels,” the university says.

The changing demographics are illustrative, even if a quarter of Britain’s population in 2050 will be over 60, compared with a third on average elsewhere in Europe. In 1948, the year of the National Health Service’s creation, just 15 per cent of Britain’s population had hit that landmark. Indeed there were just 200,000 over-80s, compared with 1.4 million today and an expected three million in 2050.

Since 1948, life expectancy at age 65 has increased by about five years, according to the research, though life expectancy for newborns has risen by 10 years.

By comparison, in the century between 1840 and the decade before the mass introduction of antibiotics in the late 1930s, life expectancy at age 65 grew by only one to two years.

“The boundaries at which stages such as youth end or early middle life and old age begin are arbitrary,” says UCL, arguing that “early later life” begins “at 65 or 70, and old age at 80”.

Rejecting the view that the welfare state must surely fall, the researchers say just 0.2 per cent of NHS spending increases in the 1980s and 1990s could be attributed to ageing.

Even today, despite the fears about nursing home costs, medical and pharmacy bills, just one percentage point of the required rise in the NHS budget is caused by ageing.

Even the cost of the recent Dilnot proposals, which recommended capping nursing home costs to £35,000 per head, can be met, Prof David Taylor insists.

“Even when older people do need long-term supportive care, it will be affordable,” he said, pointing out that the complete Dilnot package would add just 0.2 per cent to the UK’s GNP.

However the future poses challenges: “Healthy ageing does not require freedom from medically diagnosed chronic or other illnesses, desirable though that might be.

“It is centrally about finding personally satisfactory and collectively affordable ways of coping with and enjoying later life, despite its undeniable challenges,” says the report.

Extending healthy life – so-called “disability-free life expectancy” – must be an “explicitly-planned, high-priority objective”, supported by community-based services.

Each year of healthy life brings savings. An addition of two more years to that tally over the next 20 years would cover up to 15 per cent of the total spending required to care for the aged.

The report opens with a 1914 quote from gerontologist Ignatz Leo Nascher, who said: “For all practical purposes the lives of the aged are useless. Their appearance is generally unaesthetic, their actions objectionable, their very existence often an incubus to those who in their humanity or duty take upon themselves the care of the aged.”

Believing that such prejudicial views about older people would no longer be officially tolerated, the university argues that longevity is a success to be celebrated, not a problem to be contained.

Equally, however, disclosure after disclosure this year about standards in British nursing homes shows that the attitudes described by Nascher nearly 100 years ago are too often the norm.