Joan Bakewell: Next we'll be told to hurry up and die

When we move out of a house we are giving up more than a space. We are giving up our identity
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The Independent Online

Must the old be held responsible for everything that's going wrong with the world? Plenty of us have led blameless (relatively) lives and don't want to be burdened with guilt as we stagger through our final years. So stop abusing the old for things they haven't done and for which they cannot be held responsible.

We suffered a bitter assault from David Willetts who claimed in his book The Pinch: that the baby boomers had stolen the futures of their children. This involved some convoluted logic about having enjoyed the blessings of the long post-war boom and not leaving our children's generation the same affluence. Now it is being suggested by a think tank called the Intergenerational Foundation that the old should move from their large homes to make room for young families.

I have lived in the same house for 48 years. And I object most strongly to this pressure. Next they'll be telling us to hurry up and die. After all, that would save everyone so much money, stop us clogging up hospital beds and solve the care crisis in one fell stroke (literally, if that's the way you go).

There is, indeed, much that is important in this housing dilemma. It is true that many old people occupy larger houses than they need. Their children have grown up and left, the garden is hard to keep tidy, the stairs are beginning to be a problem. Every older person knows this, and realises that as the years go by that these matters will have to be faced. Will they downsize to smaller accommodation or move directly to the care home which is the destiny waiting for most of us? It is a sad thought and one we prefer not to face. Yet at the same time the country has an acute housing shortage and young people can't afford to buy. Lack of foresight and planning, the woeful shortage of social housing have all created the crisis. But there's spare capacity in abundance. Half of all bedrooms in homes are unoccupied, the Intergenerational Foundation reports. And so, they conclude (recommending a change in stamp duty to engineer it) why not simply rearrange the housing stock?

That may seem logical. But the human spirit isn't logical. It is a sensitive matter to give up the home where you've lived perhaps for decades, where your children have grown up, where rooms once stuffed with toys and noise are now vacant and silent. When we move out we are giving up more than a space, we are giving up memories, a sense of our own identity. The mind grows frail and needs the familiarity of things to steady our spirit. Over the years we have gathered loads of stuff – furniture, books, knick-knacks – we don't want to be rid of. We are losing our fitness, our mobility, even many of our friends. Clinging to the home we know is one way of feeling safe in a harsh world.

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