Rory’s response to 2014 Budget
Rory Stewart (Penrith and The Border): I want to speak briefly about the elderly. The response to the Budget has focused on the needs of the next generation and of younger people, but I represent a constituency in Cumbria with serious issues of isolation. I will make three points.
First, we should bear in mind the enormous contribution of older people. All of us, from all parts of the House, know from experience that people aged over 55 are probably the most vigorous and active citizens in our communities. Many of the things that happen day in, day out for us as constituency MPs involve people aged over 55 challenging our decisions, holding us to account, being highly articulate and leading community projects.
Whether it is by digging in superfast broadband or working out how to support the hospice at home movement, the elderly make an enormous contribution.
The reality is, however, that the elderly in this country are suffering a real problem. We have developed a culture that is increasingly focused on the young: on the idea of youth, on the idea of productivity, and on the idea of the next generation. We are finding it more and more difficult, in the media or in the House, to talk properly about the elderly, although in my experience—and, I suspect, in the experience of many other Members—it is the elderly in particular who represent the most shocking scandal in our society. Day after day, walking into the homes of the elderly, we witness scenes of loneliness, isolation and deprivation which can be shocking. We do have ways of addressing this—the Government’s pension reforms are a very good step in the right direction, and it is good to hear, for example, Age UK praising those reforms— but there is much that we can do to become more ingenious.
One concrete example of the scandal in our society is deafness. We pride ourselves constantly on huge technological changes. We pride ourselves on being able to produce a new kind of laptop every year, and on increasing developments in miniaturisation. However, hearing aid technology is still basically stuck in the 1970s. Deafness is a terrible thing. Anyone who lives with a deaf person can see that it removes the complexity from conversation, it removes the human relationship, and it creates deep isolation. Yet we are not investing in and developing the technology in the way in which we could.
Secondly, we need to grasp the potential of telehealth and telemedicine, which, despite spending more than £1 billion on superfast broadband, the national health service has not yet done. If we want elderly people to remain at home, we need to find a way of addressing them directly. I recently had a very depressing conversation with staff in a GP’s surgery, who told me that they felt no need to use superfast broadband connections, because they were just coming to terms with the huge benefits of talking to people on the telephone.
Thirdly, we need to think about how we can use community hospitals in a much more flexible and imaginative way to support social enterprises and third sector organisations—about which we heard from the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears)—when it comes to going into people’s homes. The biggest killer among elderly people in this country at the moment is, of course, loneliness. A person’s chance of dying doubles within a year of his or her partner’s death. We can all understand how that happens, in very concrete terms. Your partner dies suddenly, and perhaps you no longer receive a prescription for a new set of glasses. Your partner dies, and perhaps your medication is no longer checked. Perhaps the stair carpet is not being nailed down. Perhaps you are not being taken to the supermarket to buy food. Those are all things that the third sector can help to deal with, and they are all things that can be dealt with by community hospitals if they are imaginatively managed.
I shall not say much more, as I am aware that we are short of time, but if our nation is looking for a mission for the next 20 or 30 years, it is this: we need to come to terms with the elderly. We all understand the statistics, because they are easy. The number of people aged over 85 will double. The number of people aged over 65 will rise by 2 million between now and 2025. The number of people with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia will double. Every single one of us will experience, in our families and our homes, the terrible pressures of ageing.
As I saw when I was in Afghanistan, all young Afghan men—men in stonewashed jeans with the latest mobile telephones— show enormous respect to the elderly. Indeed, they will cross the road to show their appreciation and support. It is very worrying that in this country, where the elderly are contributing so much in terms of citizenship, wisdom, advice and support, every one of us, day by day, sees our parents, our grandparents or indeed our friends undergoing the terrible process of deafness, forgetfulness or, ultimately, dementia. We need, as a Government and as a community, to build a society that is fit not just for our children, but for our parents.