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Who cares for an ageing population?

Britain has an ageing population. The proportion of people aged 65 or over increased from 15% in 1985 to 17% in 2010 and is projected to reach 23% of the total population by 2035. This represents political as well as human challenges

More than half of the UK welfare budget is spent funding pensions, healthcare and other benefits for our senior citizens and this expenditure is expected to rise by £2.8 billion a year over the next five years, reaching a total of £128 billion by the end of this Parliament. Typically, older people need health and social care more than younger people, and it has been estimated that they consume 70% of that budget. At a time when the Government is trying to eliminate the budget deficit it inherited, whilst simultaneously protecting the defence, NHS and overseas aid budgets, these statistics are seriously challenging. This is exacerbated by the fall in tax revenues when older people retire from employment.

Next Wednesday (25th November) the Chancellor George Osborne will announce the Autumn Spending Review. How can he handle these challenges, bearing in mind that the treatment of older people is politically sensitive and a higher proportion of them vote than younger people? One option is to means test selected benefits and care services so that the better off pay more for them. Another would be to raise the age at which the state pension is paid; whilst encouraging younger people to save more for their retirement. One reason for an ageing population is that people live longer as the result of better preventative health care. Raising the pension age could encourage more to delay retirement, helping to reduce public expenditure and defer cuts in tax revenues.

It would be wrong, though, to see this issue solely in financial terms. There are other human and social aspects that should not be overlooked. A recent report from Age UK reveals that loneliness is experienced by an increasing number of older people. Marriage breakdown is more widespread and families are more geographically scattered. Younger couples may both need to work, leaving less time to care for dependent relatives. In some instances these trends weaken the possibilities of family support for their elderly members. Winter weather is another complicating factor when pensioners try to save by not heating their homes to keep the bills down. The combination of loneliness and self-neglect can lead to depression and even mental illness.

Challenging us all to be good neighbours, Professor Willett, NHS England’s Director of Acute Care, says ‘The fact that a third of elderly people never or only occasionally socialise with family or friends is not only a sad indictment of the society we live in, but the results of that social isolation present one of the biggest challenges to the NHS over the winter.’ He suggests we can all look out for our elderly neighbours, offering to help with shopping or by taking them to the shops. We can collect medications for them from the pharmacy and help them with home tasks they cannot handle. From Jesus’ perspective, loving our neighbours comes second only to loving God. It is also a way of sharing our faith and being different from the self- orientated individualism that dominates contemporary British culture.