Sweden tops the best places to live if you’re old – but the UK didn't even make the top ten

This country with its cult of youth and celebrity has developed very troubling attitudes towards growing older

Share

I have an idea for a fantasy novel. I haven’t finessed the plot yet, but it will be set in a futuristic city-state in the years following a cataclysmic era called the Inter-Generational Wars. The old were defeated and are now confined to semi-underground warehouses, allowed to dart in and out only with a special pass until a curfew descends at 8pm, when the young, enjoying the financial spoils seized in the wars, are out at play. The young must be spared the sight of wrinkly flesh and grey hair, especially in their places of leisure. Healthy olds with cosmetic procedures are tolerated in menial roles until they collapse from exhaustion and are carted off.

It’s a preposterous scenario. But it felt vaguely imaginable one Saturday night recently in a busy gastropub in north London. As 40-somethings we just about blended in with the very loud, overwhelmingly late-20s and early-30s crowd. But then, a white-haired couple in anoraks appeared apologetically, and it was like a scene from a Western when the piano player stops, everybody falls silent and stares.

Sometimes in parts of London it feels as if older people have been banished, especially after dark. The middle classes huddle in safe places for greyheads like the National Theatre. But you rarely see the easy inter-generational mingling that characterises life in other European cities. Social gathering places, restaurants, bars, entire streets, operate an age apartheid via the volume of music, the acoustics or the drinking policies they encourage. If you’re old, your choices are limited. If you’re old and poor, forget it. My neighbour Jean, who is 80, rarely ventures out, sticking to just one bus route to lug back her shopping. Younger occupants of my block get their groceries from Ocado, but Jean is excluded from that, as she’s not online.

Of course, London represents the extreme because of its scale and pace. But British society generally, with its cult of youth and celebrity, has attitudes about age so troubling they have begun to mirror the sexism and racism of previous eras. We’ve heard enough about old people left to die of starvation because the profit-driven “care” company left them off the rota, to know that there is a social care crisis. But how do you address it when in a climate of public anxiety about unemployment and cutbacks it is acceptable to accuse the old en masse of being parasites? Asset-rich buspass-holding oldsters rattling around in mansions they bought for 10 bob or whatever it was in the 1970s, may be valid targets for reform. But the debate is framed so much around the idea of generational theft, with a strong undercurrent of contempt for old age, that nothing constructive can emerge.

Britain’s unimpressive ranking in the first ever Global Age Watch Index released by the UN this week is a symptom of this. The UK does better than Afghanistan, where you are lucky to make it beyond 59. But what pride can the fourth richest country in the world take from failing to make it even into the top 10, lagging behind not just the Scandinavians, but bankrupt Ireland and Obamacare-hating America?

The study is not just about whether there will be enough hospital beds or care homes as the over-60s begin to outnumber the under-fives. We know there won’t be: the ONS forecasts that by 2030 there will be 50 per cent more people over the age of 65 in the UK than at present and 80 per cent more people in England and Wales with dementia.

What the index looks at is life in the round: work, incomes, education and what in UN jargon is called “an enabling environment”. This is about whether the old are made to feel such a burden that they would be better off dead.

In Sweden – the best place to be old – the elderly are spared the terror of poverty, because state pensions are decent. “If you’re a child, or if you’re old, it is paradise,” as a friend whose  ailing mother in Stockholm received almost round-the-clock state care, in her own home, told me. What is so striking is that Sweden was not rich when it introduced universal pension provision a century ago. Today it spends five times more on its elderly than the EU average. Even poor countries like Sri Lanka earn praise from the UN. If the right choices are made soon enough, an ageing society does not automatically imply higher healthcare spending. Britain however, as a House of Lords report in June warned, remains “woefully underprepared” for the demographic changes.

We can debate the policy choices for future housing, pensions or work arrangements. Should employers give people with old parents the same leave rights as those with babies? Do we need a ministry of the old? But even debate is difficult when we’ve begun to regard ageing as a disability. We could start with thinking about our language. Why is every old person always “a pensioner” or a “little old lady” both of which convey pity but not respect. Our comedy betrays near-disgust for the old. It’s not so long  since those Little Britain sketches predicated entirely on incontinent old people or Catherine Tate’s vicious old “nan”.

This week’s findings should shame us into a rethink, if not out of social justice, fairness, or even human compassion, then out of selfishness. Will we really want it to be no country for old men (or women) when it’s our turn?

Twitter: @ButlerKatherine

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The traditional Boxing Day hunt in Lacock  

For foxes' sake: Don't let the bloody tradition of the Boxing Day hunt return

Mimi Bekhechi
 

Letter from the Deputy Editor: i’s Review of the Year

Andrew Webster
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all