Why do we treat old people so badly?

How do we bring home to politicians and employers that once people turn 60, they are not just a nuisance?
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The Independent Online

Three cheers for Sir Norman Wisdom - finally deciding to retire and hang up that funny ill-fitting suit and flat hat at 90, after a wonderful career. I think we can safely predict that Sir Norman won't be spending the coming winter months sitting in a one-room flat rationing his heating and worrying whether the state pension is enough to live on. And he probably won't be spending four hours or more sitting in a casualty department waiting to be admitted to hospital if he feels a touch under the weather.

Three cheers for Sir Norman Wisdom - finally deciding to retire and hang up that funny ill-fitting suit and flat hat at 90, after a wonderful career. I think we can safely predict that Sir Norman won't be spending the coming winter months sitting in a one-room flat rationing his heating and worrying whether the state pension is enough to live on. And he probably won't be spending four hours or more sitting in a casualty department waiting to be admitted to hospital if he feels a touch under the weather.

On BBC breakfast news this week we were treated to footage of happy Australian pensioners playing in a bowls tournament under a lovely blue sky, while a financial expert waffled on about how the Aussies have got pension provision "just about right" by making it compulsory for employers to pay about 9 per cent of their staff's pay into a private pension plan while workers contribute roughly 3 per cent of their salary.

Having just returned from Down Under, a place where I once happily worked for six months, I can honestly say that the conditions for a pleasant retirement exist in abundance in suburban Melbourne or Sydney, in a way, quite frankly, they do not in a London borough like Hackney, or on a council estate in Newcastle. Great weather, safe suburbia, gregarious people and a positive attitude to old age, for starters.

Yesterday's National Audit office report which revealed that the people still sitting in a casualty department for four hours or more waiting to be attended to are the elderly, reinforces the point that Britain is not a place to enjoy getting old in. The idea that a sick person aged over 60 is kept waiting unattended for half a day in the chaotic and busy environment of A and E surrounded by violent drunks and junkies shows you how senior citizens are more discriminated against than any other group in our society.

Labour may plead that they've injected an extra £10bn into pensions and introduced means testing and pension credits to bring an estimated 1.8 million of the elderly out of poverty. But can we just pause for a moment and consider their quality of life? Unlike Sir Norman Wisdom, the poorest pensioners in Britain (even with Labour's largesse) are hardly going to be having a fabulous time eking out their £105 a week to heat their homes and eat.

I ask you honestly - could you live on that pathetic sum? Our state pension equates to 37 per cent of average national earnings - even the USA can cough up 45 per cent, whereas Sweden, France and the Netherlands all fund pensions valued at over 70 per cent of average earnings. Quite simply, we treat the old amazingly meanly. Sir Norman will always be in demand to speak and make public appearances - he is, after all, the kind of person that the Japanese revere as "living treasures". All over Britain, though, are millions of "living treasures" but sadly our government, and to a large extent our media, simply wishes to sweep them under the carpet.

When I wrote in this paper about the appallingly poor quality of care in residential homes for the elderly I received dozens of letters of support, as well as outraged missives from those who operate private (and often costly) facilities anxious to show me they offer a wonderful experience for anyone who has saved enough to fund a residency.

But how do we bring home to politicians, opinion formers and employers, that once people turn 60, they are not an increasing nuisance which has to be funded at the most basic level, cared for in conditions you wouldn't send your dog to, and made to wait for emergency medical care until the end of the day after everyone else has been attended to? The press coverage this week of the first report from the Pensions Commission chaired by Adair Turner talked about a "crisis". To me, probably because I am nearly 58, getting old isn't a problem. I am middle class, have private health care, and am lucky enough to work as a writer, which means I can carry on for some time.

But most pensioners and even people in my own family are not so lucky. They can't save because they have been made redundant in their late fifties and are spending their savings trying to keep their heads above water and fund their children's further education. I imagine the Birds Eye workers in Grimsby, who learned the other day that their factory is to close, would have something to say about that. What about all the telecom and IT workers whose jobs have been whisked off to a distant country where the pay and conditions don't have to meet EU requirements? I laugh out loud when Patricia Hewitt harps on about ending age discrimination - it is so endemic in Britain it's not even a discussion point. How many people in their late fifties do you know who have recently found a decent job? Most 50-year-olds do not have the opportunity to save for their retirement after they've funded their children's university education and paid their bills. If they are in manual work, who can blame them for retiring at 60 and 65 - their health will have suffered, even if they could manage to discuss any serious illnesses with their local doctor during the average eight minutes you are now allocated for an appointment.

It's grotesque to even consider raising the pensionable age when most men who have worked hard all their lives (and paid their contributions towards their state pension) will only have five years or so to "enjoy" their retirement before they die. It's going to be the poorest people, who have flogged themselves to death on the minimum wage from the school-leaving age, who have the shortest, and most cash-strapped, retirement.

Last Saturday in Whitstable High Street an old man fell ill in a supermarket. A teenager was alone at the checkout and couldn't leave his post. Someone called an ambulance on their mobile and then left with their family. As this old man sat wheezing for breath, ignored by shoppers, I felt powerless. Luckily I heard the emergency services arriving within 10 minutes, and now can only hope that he wasn't condemned to five hours on a trolley in Canterbury hospital.

The next morning I looked out of the window and saw a sprightly old lady walking along the beach at 8am in her dressing gown. We captured her, made her tea and soon her loving son arrived to collect his confused mum. She's in perfect health, just a bit senile. She loves walking, and who can blame her. But the local authority would not fund the tracking device she wore around her neck (with her name and next of kin's number on it) because it cost £1,000. If she had been incontinent and dribbled, no doubt she'd be placed in a care home without delay.

The Government needs to stop talking about "poverty thresholds" and "provision" of services and start focusing on quality of life for the elderly. This woman had a good quality of life because her family were prepared to pay to ensure she could continue to do all the things she wanted, in her own home.

Sadly our state is too cumbersome, too bureaucratic and too rigid in its approach to an ageing population, which is why we are facing a crisis, and it requires a fundamental rethink from the top down.

It's mainly the "problem" people, the elderly, who will be voting in the next election - and if I was Mr Blair, I would be making my manifesto as attractive to them as possible.

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