The realities that highlight an increasing need for a Minister for the Elderly
This week is Dementia Awareness Week, and a great time to reflect on how to help those with Dementia. It is a distressing and debilitating condition which we care about very much, yet, feel that this week carries with it some dangers. Focusing on this one issue in isolation — while it can help communities and individuals step up to help — can create a smoke-screen which masks, or pushes to the background, some very serious associated issues. Perhaps Dementia Awareness Week should not be viewed just as a time to focus on the challenges of now, but should be a time of reflection and vision. Britain faces a very scary future scenario when it comes to its ageing population and that is intimately tied up with the challenges of dementia.
Even the simplest facts should be giving us all pause for thought:
- One in three people over 65 will develop dementia in their lifetime, according to figures from the Alzheimer’s Society. This is a startling enough likelihood that we must face, not only for our ageing relatives but as we look towards our own future.
- The number of UK citizens over the age of 65 is already more than 10.5 million, and this figure is set to increase steadily and dramatically for the predictable future in Britain and around the western world. There will be over 16 million in that age bracket in the next 20 years.
- Not only will there be more of us in the ‘elderly’ category, we are also living longer, on average. That means that there will be an increasing proportion of the population at the older end of the 65-plus spectrum. The number of those aged 85 and over is predicted to double in the next 20 years – and triple in the next 30. There will be a significant number of people over the age of 100. Where in the past it was exceptional to find the extreme elderly, it will become increasingly common.
Everything must adapt. In such an ageing society, dementia will be only one of the impacts and implications that we must face – yet, to date, remarkably little has been done. Efforts to rationalise (and ration) care through major legislative exercises such as the Care Bill can only, in reality, focus on part of the problem at any one time. The problem of taking a piecemeal approach to such a vast issue is that as you change one part of a system, you can create myriad unforeseen outcomes and still fail to effect positive change.
There is, currently, no minister with specific responsibility for the Elderly population that exists today or which will come to exist in the future. Instead, it is bundled under the vast responsibilities of the Secretary of State for Health and the Minister of State for Care and Support, who must also grapple with unrelated things such as prison care, and care for every other category of citizen. Not only is this unrealistic, but the problem is that the implications of our ageing do not lie solely in matters of how we deal with the illness that is dementia, organise elderly care, or arrange NHS resources.
The challenges that lie ahead touch on every aspect of Government responsibility, from housing and planning of our future communities and built environment, to the behaviour and expectation of businesses in dealing with older customers, to the provision of key public services like transport, to pensions. The list goes on, of course, and underlying it all is the question of how to fund and finance essential change, and negotiate and balance the demands of ageing Britain against all its other pressing needs.
We must stop being Ostriches
The UK Government has been steadfastly ignoring this issue for years now. The current administration did not act even after it was handed a clear call to action by a cross-party group of back bench MPs in June 2012 who launched a Commons debate after a concerted campaign by action group Grey Pride. Numerous petitions have been started, both by that organisation and others independently. A ‘tsar’ approach was tried under the last Government with veteran actress Baroness Joan Bakewell stepping in, but it wasn’t continued, and no real action was taken – not even her calls for the appointment for, at the very least, a commissioner for the elderly to help fight discrimination and promote awareness of elderly issues. In our view this was focused on the wrong part of the challenge; but even this ‘watered-down’ approach would go some way to equalising the disparity which exists, inexplicably, between the interests of the elderly and children, who enjoy (in effect) positive discrimination. While we would not want the interests of children to be neglected in any way, we believe that the same or more attention and support MUST be provided to the elderly.
To date, we have all been guilty of waiting for others to take action. The Government has said it will ‘consider’ the matter, but some spokespeople have raised spurious concerns around the risks of taking such a step – and ignore both the pressing need, and potential benefits. Public services have been content to deal with current problems, and paid insufficient attention to those which are coming down the line. Each administration has managed to hand off the problem to the next. This cannot continue.
Call to Action: Call for Change
This issue is not going to go away.
We call, firstly, on the elderly population, who are voters in their own right, to stand up and call for action on this vital issue. We call on all adults to do the same, in fact – because this isn’t something that will only affect someone else. It is going to affect you, and significantly so.
We also, most of all, call on the political establishment to wake up, and recognise the critical needs that exist now, as well as in the future. This problem sits above and beyond what any single administration can deal with, but we need someone to step up and start the ball rolling – soon. Every member of the Government, both in power and in Opposition, and every public servant in the UK must recognise this as their own problem – because, like everyone, they will age. If the current Government can be brought to recognise it, the next will still need to recommit. This is no small challenge, but postponing it does not make it any easier to address.
The enormity of the changes that our ageing population will force in our society means that ageing and elderly issues should be part of every policy decision. Failure to do so will mean inevitable needs for knee-jerk, after-the-fact, reactive change in the future, at far higher cost than would have been incurred had they been addressed ahead of time. Whatever it is called: a Minister for Older People, a Minister for the Elderly, or a Minister for Ageing Britain, we need one, and extremely soon.
We will be writing directly to the Home Secretary, Theresa May MP, in her capacity as our own local Member of Parliament, and would exhort any reader to do the same, to ask her to take action on our behalf, and join our call to arms.
Sources include: Alzheimer’s Society http://www.alzheimers.org.uk/site/scripts/documents.php?categoryID=200120
Halcyon Home Care is deeply committed to excellence in dementia care, and last year appointed a Dementia Champion. Read some of our other dementia articles. such as 6 ways to care for dementia in winter and Connecting to people with dementia