Alan Walker: It's time the Government acted to transform the lives of the elderly

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The Independent Online

Older People's human rights should be central to policy and practice. Too many older people experience discrimination and social exclusion, and feel they are not listened to or valued; far too many experience long poverty, low incomes and related health problems.

We all share the same goal: to delay for as long as possible (ideally to the point of death) all of the negative associations with later life – physical, mental and financial. There is a rare synergy between individual and societal interests. This creates a tremendously positive platform for policymakers.

The Government deserves praise for several impressive strategies and plans, for example on housing and social inclusion of older people. Now is the time to implement them. Spending now can transform the lives of older people.

The recession also reminds us of the need to combat ageism – especially in the workplace. The last recession hit the middle-aged particularly hard, with many unemployed for up to 15 years before retiring. Employment should be part of a new strategy which reflects the fact that ageing is a lifetime process.

But no strategy aimed at improving our post-retirement years can be meaningful if it does not tackle pensioner poverty. The present approach will not eradicate it. Nearly one in four older people live in poverty, so we should see specific targets to combat this.

Finally, any strategy on fairness in an ageing society must spotlight intergenerational relations. Younger people need to be clear that they have to think about their own ageing. Policymakers must emphasise the intergenerational contract.

Individually and as a society we have yet to really absorb just how significant demographic change is. Public policy always has a structural lag, in which both thinking and practice remain rooted in the past. We have the evidence base for a new approach, some excellent strategies and some very successful pilot projects. The last part is simple: a bold vision, about fairness and human rights for older people, with political support and the resources to tackle a great challenge.

Alan Walker, Professor of Social Policy and Social Gerontology at the University of Sheffield, speaks at the Fabian Society's 'Fairness in an ageing society' forum today