I recently met with a friend of mine who had just had her 90th Birthday and one of the many things we discussed was the way in which, however old you are, you do not feel different inside. With age may come a range of health conditions, but what should not be inevitable, is the erosion of your dignity and autonomy. We were both musing on the fact, that even though you do not feel any different there is often a point in your life when others start treating you differently.
This was brought home to my friend on a recent stay in hospital, where she said people seemed to think that because she was an older person, she was incapable of making decisions or engaging in discussion on difficult issues. The attitude of many in the hospital was that she could not do anything for herself and despite having a full life as a wife, mother, grandmother, doctor, writer and researcher; she was seen as somebody who could not even be trusted to decide what dress she wore that day.
My friends experience is all-too-familiar and many older people feel that with age comes the loss of their independence and their position as a valued member of the community.
In recent years we have seen some fantastic examples of intergenerational work and the move towards having younger people’s services connecting with older people’s is really healthy and is paying some significant dividends. One of the reasons why I think it is so important is because it enables us to ensure younger people understand the experiences older people and vice versa. With this shared understanding we can build more coherent communities and use the human resources that we have available much more effectively.
Over the last 50 years we have made significant strides in reducing inequalities across our system. There is now a greater societal awareness of sexism, homophobia and disability rights. However, the one area that I think has been left behind in the transformation of people’s perceptions of inequalities and prejudice is ageing.
I am astounded at the way in which I see casual ageism manifest itself in just about every aspect of life. Comments are made about older people that would never be allowed if they were about disabled people, black people, gay people, or indeed any other group. The tragedy of this discrimination is that it goes far beyond negative comments and ageism is ingrained at the very heart of our system.
If you consider the way in which care, is commissioned for older people compared to other groups, you will see a focus on purely physical and service led objectives, rather than a commissioning approach that helps people to live well in their communities. Compare the funding packages for older people with other client groups and the discrimination becomes starkly apparent. However, this discrimination goes way beyond the money and can be characterised as a paucity of ambition for the lives of older people and an attempt to commission services at the cheapest level possible, rather than commissioning outcomes for a good life.
Care England’s Chair, Avnish Goyal, has recently called for the establishment of an Older People’s Commissioner, very much based on the Welsh model. I agree with Avnish that a role of this type would ensure that the entire system was called to account and delivered fairness and equity in the way services were commissioned to deliver a good life for all older people.