Leading Article: An age-old issue that all of us must confront

WE ARE all getting older, so The Independent's Christmas appeal on behalf of old people is not asking for charity towards some tribe of unfortunates who find themselves in our midst, but for a better understanding of our collective self-interest.

We do not wish to add to the portrayal of old people as the powerless victims of neglect, poverty and discrimination - although these are real problems. What naturally follows from that perception is the mere loading of the victims with tea, sympathy and hand-outs - again, these may be needed, but pity is not the whole story.

We should start by looking down the other end of the telescope, by beginning with the contribution we can all continue to make to society when we are old, by reconnecting young and old, and by facing the reality of physical decline and death with a fighting spirit. When people have children, the point of grandparents suddenly becomes obvious: it is then that we can see the waste of human potential produced by a society which isolates and demeans people who have passed an arbitrary "use by" date - a society with, at the same time, a vast unmet need for high-quality child care, for supplementary education, for advice, counselling, mentoring and supervision.

No one much likes being called old, which is part of the problem. Our culture of youth-worship has spawned a range of euphemisms, some of which, like "the elderly", are more demeaning than plain English. The Prime Minister called them "senior citizens" in the Commons this week, which is not a bad euphemism, even though it sounds dated on this side of the Atlantic. Tony Blair's language epitomises the problem. Last month he had to crash his rhetorical gearbox into reverse: "When I spoke before the election of wanting to create a Young Country, there were those... who saw this as a wish to turn Britain into a nation where only the young can prosper. It was nothing of the sort. It was a pledge to build a country where all are valued." Of course it was, Prime Minister. To be fair to him, he has also spoken persuasively of the need to rebuild communities on the building-blocks of strong and, by implication, extended families.

But he has not followed fine words with anything like enough action. With his talent for asserting that black is simultaneously black and white, that marriage is both better than and equal to non-marriage, he claimed that the Young Country was a promise "to remove the old barriers which prevent everyone, whatever their age, from playing their full part in our society". In which case, why was Ian McCartney's pledge to outlaw age discrimination dropped from the manifesto? All that is now being offered is a "code of conduct" for employers, and it is not even clear whether employment tribunals will refer to it.

There is certainly a disparity between the Government's efforts directed at the young unemployed and lone parents on the one hand, and old people on the other. It could be bluntly argued that more is at stake with a young person who faces a lifetime on the scrap-heap than with someone who has been retired early, at the age of 50, and may never find another job. But the extent of the disparity is unjustified, especially when old people could be part of the solution to the problems faced by the young.

In particular, the idea of one-to-one contact between government agencies and benefit claimants is one that should be extended to pensioners. Harriet Harman, in her 14-month tenure at Social Security, set up pilot schemes to test the best ways of ensuring that pensioners take up the benefits to which they are entitled. But we already know that one-to-one interviews are the best way to proceed, a method that could also be adapted, like the New Deal for young people, to help old people to make a valuable contribution to society, as well as simply assessing their needs.

In a week in which it has become clear that the Government will duck radical reform of the ramshackle structure of pensions, we should try to balance that debate by looking at how people can continue in flexible work after the age of 65, rather than simply regarding them as a burden. It should be obvious that one of the solutions to poverty in old age is for people to have jobs available for longer.

Of course, there is a growing burden of care on young people, and even on the "less old". We should not lapse into an optimistic fantasy of fit and happy grannies busily propping up and holding together the young people's show, or even an imaginary world populated by vigorously bad- tempered Victor Meldrews. As physical health improves and longevity lengthens, the problems of senility grow. In our Christmas appeal, we also want to support work against the physical abuse of old people, which is often associated with the frustrations of looking after the difficult and the disoriented. The dangers of tragic abuse of children's trust in residential institutions is now well known, but we should extend those lessons to make sure that old people in similar circumstances are not isolated and ignored.

And, finally, our appeal will support the hospice movement, which has been the most important step forward in recent years towards greater dignity in death. Hospices are not just for the old, of course, but part of the reason for modern society's unhappy attitude to old people is that it reflects not just our fear of death, but our embarrassment about it. Death may never lose its sting, but hospices provide places which at least acknowledge what is going on. Until younger people are able to look such facts in the eye without blushing, the gulf between old and young will continue to divide us.

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