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The challenges of our growing and ageing population

Population size and density are sensitive political issues in the UK. We are an island with 426 people per square Kilometre. In Europe only the Netherlands and Belgium are more densely populated than the UK. This has implications for pressure on public services, such as the supply of housing, class sizes in schools and NHS waiting times. 

137.9 million people came to Britain in 2018 but that included British citizens returning to their national home as well as visitors coming to visit relatives and for vacations or to study at our Universities. Of this number only 273,000 were net long term immigrants, fewer than the 330,000 in 2016. Even so that number still exceeds Government targets of less than 100,000. Significant was that the numbers coming from the EU are falling whilst those from elsewhere continue to grow.

Immigration is not the only cause of population growth.  In 2018 the UK population was approximately 66.5 million and this number is expected to grow 74million by 2039 as a result of increased life expectancy and the number of births outnumbering deaths, as well as immigration exceeding emigration.  The UK population is ageing.  18.2% were aged 65 or over in 2017 compared with 15.9% in 2007 and the number is projected to exceed 20% by 2027. For many living longer is the result of better health and diet and is to be welcomed but for some it can mean loneliness and the need for caring support.

Positively, healthy elderly people can support their sons and daughters who need to work and care for their grandchildren. When retired they also have time for community activities and for enjoying hobbies and social activities they missed when working. On the other hand, longer retirement may mean poverty, isolation and depression. That can be especially serious for widowed ladies whose pensions are inadequate because they took time out to have children who have subsequently moved away and are not practically able to care for them. To counter this, the Government has removed the fixed retirement age so that women are no longer obliged to retire at 60 and men at 65. By 2020 the normal retirement age for both men and women will be 66 and employers are being encouraged to employ older workers.

That will help some but not those ten or more years older. In places like rural West Somerset and rural Sussex a significant number of the population are over 85. Any of these people, if unsupported, need some form of social care. That will include protection from abuse or neglect, physical or mental deterioration, and activities that protect their human rights and help them to remain independent. This can be provided by family members, neighbours and the local community, including local churches and charities or by the local authorities.

The austerity measures in force since 2010 have reduced the capacity of local authorities to provide adequate social care services. The charity Independent Age has found that the quality of care service in 37% of English local authorities has declined in the past year. In 2018 44% of care homes in Manchester were rated as either ’inadequate’ or ‘requires improvement’. The report concluded “that over 2.6 million pensioners are now being forced to choose between sub-par care homes due to the rising numbers of facilities given poor ratings by the Care Quality Commission”.

This situation gives local churches an opportunity to practice the neighbour love that Jesus taught (Matthew 19:19; 22:39). Mission orientated churches could seek to identify elderly folk living alone, visit them and offer appropriate support, such as shopping, cutting the lawn, lifts to the doctor,  and just chatting. A community lunch is another option that offers company and friendship to lonely people. Such initiatives might even help those people to meet Christ.

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