Grey Matters

March 30, 2010

Suddenly, care for the elderly has become an issue for public discussion. It’s not coincidental that as an election draws near, the Tories and Labour have started to discuss how they can improve the lot of pensioners – but it is deeply cynical. Years after New Labour were elected, millions of pensioners receive either improper or no care.  For some (my grandmother, for instance) the New Labour years have been relatively comfortable, with some pension rises and decent council provided care (and a family to assist as well). But for many others, this has simply not been the case.

Chanceller of the Exchequer Alasdair Darling seems to have abandoned what the Tories charmingly call a “death tax” – a levy on the estates of the deceased, focusing on the wealthiest. But he does still favour a levy in some form, reportedly a “compulsory” one. There is some disagreement on when and how much this levy will be, although we’re promised an announcement soon. As for the Tories, amidst “efficiency savings” and cutbacks, the kinds of investment that the elderly need are not likely to materialise.

What this suggests is that Labour are rowing back on promises to fund adequare care. Reports now suggest that they will fund residential care only after two years (of what is not clear, but presumably self funded care?). It also isn’t clear how this can be “funded by freezing inheritance tax for the lifetime of the parliament” instead of increasing it, as the New Statesman reports. The Guardian adds some detail, reporting that an upcoming White Paper will “propose new laws to cap the cost of residential costs after two years in a home” and it will be the inheritance tax thresholds that will be frozen, an effective increase in the dreaded “death tax.” This though, will apparently be insufficient, as the government claims that the retirement age will have to rise beyond 65 and those “efficiency savings” will be required.

They can start by a) ditching Trident b) ditching the Afghan War c) demanding compensation from crooked contractors to the NHS and other government departments d) impose a compulsory levy on banks proportionate to the amount of compensation they grant to their staff (add populist, but necessary, measure here)….

But this is not the major point. I think we can agree that whatever proposals emerge will be a fudge, with some extra resources for elderly care, but far too little to make a dent in spiralling care needs, as the population ages. The political will and courage on display is not adequate to the task, which is to reform British society to deal with its demographic development. This is not a minor task, by the way:

The government believes (if it has consulted its own statistics) that by 2020, over one third of the population will be over 60 years old. This presents both challenges and opportunities, however. Aging is not a process of “worsening” and there is a danger that debates like this will cast the elderly as a gathering burden on “productive” society.

This “productive” portion of British society, if it can be meaingfully separated from the rest, will have to adapt to the changing demands of the population. At the moment, responding to the youth culture which arose with the baby boomer generation, Britain has developed a lively cultural sector, and an industrial economy which tends to rely on luxuries and status goods more than staples such as clothing or foodstuffs.

More elderly people doesn’t necessarily mean less luxury. But it does mean a different focus on goods which cater for a less mobile population – things which make mobility easier such as public transport, wheelchairs, and public subsidies for such goods. And we don’t tend to associate elderly people with the kind of lifestyle that mass consumerism has promoted – the accumulation of cheap clothing with its rapid fashion changes, cultural ephemera like music players, internet services and large scale alcohol consumption.

Adapting the economy to the elderly means shifting such productive activities to areas that elderly people value – which of course varies but some suggestions can be made. Gardening and small scale food production can use the skills and labour of elderly people well into retirement. Food production likewise. Local or national tourism – tapping British heritage and natural assets could expand, alongside measures to make travel for the elderly to such places far easier. And in my experience, the elderly value entertainment and celebration above all else. So an aging population will be a boom period for hospitality workers, impresarios and caterers.

None of this is particularly glamorous economic activity. Tourism in Britain, for example, continues to decline. A visit to a decaying seaside town shows just how much investment is required to make such places ready for a potential boom. And such booms remain “potential” as there is no guarantee that the “market” will provide the means for elderly customers to travel there.

This is a key thing to remember. Left alone, the market will not generate a new economy that is caring and joyful for the elderly. Far from it. It is just as possible to envisage a barracks style economy in which the elderly are imprisoned within vast care facilities and essentially farmed by corporate care providers.

To move towards the caring economy requires a sustained political project, and it is needed right now. What’s exciting about it from a green perspective, however, are the ways in which such a project fits into other pressing needs. As mentioned above, improving care for the elderly can go hand in hand with building sustainable food networks. Elderly allotment holders can teach younger cultivators. Local restaurants can buy their produce, providing some vital income. Care homes can be vital learning centres for school children and sites of food production as well.

The same goes for tourism. A vanguard of elderly visitors could begin the reinvigoration of British resorts and attractions, bringing investment and younger visitors in their wake. In some ways, we should be seeing the elderly as the most dynamic economic sector in our society. Not wrapped up in the chaos of the declining music industry, or Hollywood’s stream of remakes and clangers, they point towards the future – which is more local, people-centred and modest.


One Response to “Grey Matters”

  1. Indeed, care for the elderly is a sensitive issue these days.

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