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Peter Beresford: It doesn't help society to think of older people as a burden

To understand current social care and to plan for the future, we must first understand the past. This is a journey through war and peace, because it takes us back to the war that gave rise to the welfare state, the Second World War.

We have now reached an age when there is a much larger proportion and number of old and very old people in our society. Now many more people are able to live long enough not only to see and be part of the lives of their grandchildren, but also of their great grandchildren. But this has been presented in the Government's Green Paper on future social care funding as a negative. They have been constructed as a burden.

The Green Paper rejects the idea of paying for social care out of general taxation so that it is a free and universal service, saying that "this is ruled out because it places a heavy burden on people of working age". Thus older people are a burden. That is how we must think of them – and indeed of service users of working age too – a burden. Policymakers have talked about them in terms of an epidemic of Alzheimer's and dementia, an avalanche of dependency and need. How does this fit with current rhetoric of dignity, choice and control?

The truth is that this emphasis on negativity, this refusal to recognise the contribution older people make to our society, to acknowledge their rights and entitlements, is the real problem. It actually demonstrates a reluctance to face up to fundamental change in our society which we must address rather than seek to reject or deny.

Put simply we must now expect many more people living in an advanced western society will now need support. This is likely to be the global pattern for the future. It is no accident that leaders of two of our main political parties have both had disabled children, as the Director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation observed to me. Societies must learn to include age and impairment as parts of the whole with growing importance.

Masquerading as a new realism is an unevidenced narrow individualistic economics rooted in the kind of selfishness that people recently highlighted to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation as what they saw as one of the new social evils of our age.

Taken from the inaugural Sir William Beveridge Foundation lecture, given at the Institution of Civil Engineers by the professor of social policy at Brunel University