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The Challenges of Ageing

Britain has an ageing population. There are 10.3 million people over 65 and 14% over 85, an 80% increase since 1951. This may be a temporary issue but it creates problems for both individuals and society.

Increasing life expectancy is good for those who remain healthy and supported by strong family life but not for those who are frail and lonely.  Older people are more likely to live alone and experience loneliness compared with those who have some care and support. Over 1 million are not receiving care they need and this can mean not speaking to anyone for a week at a time. With ageing, people can lose links with old friends and find it difficult to make new ones, especially if their mobility is limited.

The family is the first line of care but family breakdown and dispersion can make sustained support difficult. Loneliness can lead to depression, self-neglect and susceptibility to illness. Preventing this would improve their quality of life and ease pressure on the NHS. Too many beds are blocked by elderly people who cannot be released because there is inadequate care for them in the community. Care homes are an alternative to living alone but they are not cheap and they are beyond the means of many.

Recent policy changes have helped to tackle pensioner poverty. The default retirement age of 65 has been abolished, enabling older people to continue working if they wished. The State pension has been increased and underpinned with a triple lock whereby the pension will be raised annually in line with wages, prices or 2.5%, whichever is the highest.  Pensioners also receive free bus passes and prescriptions as well as winter fuel payments. An ageing population creates an increasing dependency of the retired on those still working, who create wealth and pay the taxes that fund pensions, the NHS and other caring services. UK pensions are funded on a pay as you go basis from today’s tax revenues so an ageing population may mean higher taxes on younger people in work. As the number of retired people grows there will be a shortage of workers, pushing up wages or encouraging more immigration. The retirement age is being gradually raised to delay this, but it will create inequality in that the wealthy can afford to retire earlier than the low paid and poor.

Most of us will have elderly neighbours. It would be easy to check they are not in urgent need, to offer to bring them some foodstuffs or to collect a prescription. An occasional invitation to a meal would help to relieve their loneliness. Christians have a particular duty to “Love your neighbour as yourself”.  There is a tendency in contemporary culture to marginalise the elderly which is at odds with biblical teaching. “Rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God” commands Leviticus 19:32.  Paul advises Timothy, “Do not rebuke an older man harshly but exhort him as if he were your father”. Underlying this is the dignity conferred on God’s human creatures created in his image.  Respect and care for the elderly is as important as active youth work in every church. A pastoral group could arrange visits to lonely elders, to offer lifts to services or to tidy their gardens or other small tasks that could mean a lot to those neighbours.

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