Archbishop’s last word: our view of elderly is a scandal

Rowan Williams uses final speech in House of Lords to decry society’s attitude to older people

Old people in Britain are too often treated with “contempt and exasperation” by the rest of society creating a climate in which “elder abuse” is rife, the Archbishop of Canterbury has warned.

In his final speech in the House of Lords before he steps down, Dr Rowan Williams said too many old people were now thought of as a “problem” and waiting to die in a country “frenetically oriented towards youth”.

He warned that such attitudes were contributing to abuse ranging from patronising and impatient behaviour to actual physical mistreatment.

And he called for elderly people to be viewed as “participants” in society rather than “passengers”.

Dr Williams, who hands over to the Bishop of Durham Justin Welby at the end of this month, said: “Too often we want to rush children into pseudo-adulthood; too often we want older citizens either to go on as part of the productive machine as long as possible or to accept a marginal and humiliating status, tolerated but not valued, while we look impatiently at our watches, waiting for them to be ‘off our hands’.”

He said that the “extremes of human life” – childhood and old age – were both being sidelined because of an “eccentric idea” that only those in the so-called prime of life could make a contribution.

“We tolerate a very eccentric view of the good life or the ideal life as one that can be lived only for a few years between, say, 18 and 40,” he said.

“The ‘extremes’ of human life, childhood and age, when we are not defined by our productive capacity, and so have time to absorb the reality around us in a different way – these are hard for our society to come to terms with.”

Dr Williams called for the Government to appoint a national Older People’s Commissioner as he pointed to estimates that one in four older people had experience one form or another form of “elder abuse”

“It is assumptions about the basically passive character of the older population that foster attitudes of contempt and exasperation, and ultimately create a climate in which abuse occurs,” he said.

Dr Williams told peers of studies showing that more than half of all over-60s already carry out some form of voluntary work, to “support the fabric of society”.

He said that the unpaid care or volunteering work was worth the equivalent of at least £50 billion.

Recently published census figures show that one in six people in England and Wales – or 9.2 million – are now over the age of 65 with another 3.3 millions more due to retire in the next few years alone.

“[It is an] undoubted fact that we are becoming dangerously used to speaking and thinking of ‘an ageing population’ as a problem, a burden on public purse and private resources alike,” said Dr Williams.

“If we live in a society that expects its older citizens to continue to support the fabric of their society and values them for doing so, we shall at least put to rest the damaging stereotype of older people as essentially passive in relation to society at large.

“And that means in turn that we may stop seeing the older population as primarily ‘dependents’ on the goodwill of family or neighbourhood or state.”

Dr Williams drew parallels with scripture which he said resonated with society.

“Running through my head has been one of the most haunting prayers in scripture: “Do not forsake me when I am old and grey-headed”,” he said.

“It is a prayer addressed to the creator but it could very well be addressed by older citizens to their fellow citizens.”

Michelle Mitchell, the  Charity Director General of Age UK said: “As a society we need to change our ideas about older people and what they have to contribute; for example, encouraging employers to look at the maturity and experience that an older worker can bring to the workplace.

“Long term unemployment for those over 50 is scandalously high – if you are a man in his fifties and become unemployed then you have a 50 per cent chance of being out of work for over a year. Yet more and more people are choosing to work past their traditional retirement age so careers do not have to have a best before stamp.

“Perhaps perceptions around age are stuck in a timewarp because many younger people have less day to day contact with older people than those of previous generations. The way we live has changed and grandchildren are less likely to live around the corner from their grandparents.

“We need to find new ways of bringing different age groups together to demonstrate the important contributions all generations make to our society.”

A spokesman for the Trades Union Congress said: “One thing that has happened is the ending of the default retirement age, that was a landmark. We are finding that people are working past their retirement age because they don’t have enough pension savings. We have an ageing workforce but no savings culture. We now have automatic enrolment, which is good. But that will take decades to take hold.

“People need to start saving, which we have started. But they also need to start saving more. A landmark was reached with automatic enrolment but we are dealing with decades of falling pension provision. Workplaces will need to encourage people to work more.

“In the meantime, we may have a generation which needs to keep working because they cannot afford to retire on the money they have.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan
Cannes 2015Dheepan, film review
Richard Blair is concerned the trenches are falling into disrepair
newsGeorge Orwell's son wants to save war site that inspired book
Arts and Entertainment
The pair in their heyday in 1967
Life and Style
fashionFrom bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine