The population is living longer, so why isn't care for the elderly a higher priority?

For the first time in history, we are living in a country where there are more pensioners than children under 16

Caitlin Hamilton
Friday 06 March 2015 13:54

There is no denying the fact that people are living longer. Yesterday we celebrated alongside Misao Okawa as she blew out the candles on her 117 birthday cake, whilst surrounded by family and loved ones in her care home in Osaka, Japan.

Ms Okawa, a supercentenarian, has lived through both world wars, has seen 20 US Presidents in office, and was 66 when Tokyo was the first Asian city to host the summer Olympics. As she was photographed gracefully enjoying the celebration of her long life, she claimed that a marriage of sleep and sushi were the key to her success.

Not everyone reaches a triple-digit birthday, admittedly, but here in the UK there are now 11 million people over the age of 65. This means that for the first time in history, we are living in a country where there are more pensioners than children under 16.

In a fitting stroke of timing, ministers announced yesterday that they are plans in motion to tackle the issue of rushed home care visits. Amidst damning reports that many elderly people in the UK receive rushed 15-minute visits from their health carers, new guidelines have been set out by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), asking that these visits become increased to half hour sessions.

The hope is that the carers can complete the necessary health checks, and then spend the additional time engaging with their elderly patients, many of who have access to limited social interaction outwith these scheduled visits.

In a time of strife, strain, and budget cuts within the NHS, where should the care for our elderly be prioritised in the long list of focus areas within our healthcare system? Ranging from physiological and neurological diseases, to conditions of frailty and loneliness, our elderly population needs help and assistance to see them comfortably through later life.

One of the diseases most associated with the elderly generation is dementia. It is estimated that over 800,000 people are affected with the disease, with this figure expected to more than double within the decade. The Government recently pledged £300m to contribute to dementia research, and David Cameron said that that task of fully understanding the disease is "one of the greatest challenges of our lifetime."

But elderly populations, and the complications that often come coupled with them, are not unique to Britain. According to the World Health Organisation, the past 50 years have brought with them a global increase in average life expectancy, most notably in developing nations. The African countries of Ethiopia and Liberia (having now been shattered by the Ebola outbreak) have shown the greatest life expectancy change over the past few decades – both having increased by a staggering 20 years.

Better health care services providing medicines and vaccines, access to improved sanitation, and enhanced nutrition mean that we are living longer than ever before. Now more than 80 per cent of countries have an average life expectancy of over 60. Yet with an aging population comes the complications and burdens that we often associate with old age. And are the health infrastructures of developing nations designed to handle these complications and burdens?

Surprisingly, South Africa is one of the continent’s wealthiest nations and boasts the most fairly distributed pension system, but it only has a handful of qualified geriatric health specialists to tend to its four million elderly population.

In less wealthy African nations, the provision of care and support is often the responsibility of the family, and as a result many welcome the inclusion of older relatives into their homes. The care can likewise be a symbiotic relationship; in countries such as Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and Zambia, upwards of 60% of orphaned children live with their elderly grandparents.

In South America, many countries provide excellent social infrastructures for their elderly populations. While in Bolivia free care is provided for the elderly, El Salvador have community programmes such as The Youth of Yesterday where carers call in to the homes of elderly citizens to provide help and companionship. The Chilean health care system is becoming increasingly all encompassing, and now the vast majority of the population are covered by either isapres or fonasa insurance schemes – private and state-run programmes, respectively.

Asian countries are home to some of the oldest people in the world - Japanese, Singaporean, and Hong Kongese live comfortably into their mid-eighties. The care for the older population in these countries has historically been the responsibility of close family members, but in a modern age family care is no longer the most feasible care option. To complement the need for an evolved healthcare system, Japan introduced a publically funded initiative in 2000 to help care for the 20% of their population which are aged. The system, which has been hailed as a success, is part funded by public and national taxation and includes a small contribution from the person receiving the care.

Although here in the UK we have a long-established system in place to care for our older generation, elements from other countries – such as the Japanese model – can always be learned from, and adopted to enhance our current structure.

In Misao Okawa’s lifetime alone, the population of the world has jumped spectacularly from 1.6billion to 7billion. And it continues to grow exponentially, year upon year. With an overwhelming trend towards a global aging population, we need to ensure that our health system is maintained to ensure that the needs of our elderly can continue to be supported.

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