Our culture excludes the old when they have so much to contribute
First published in The Observer on 9 November 2013.
Parliament talks ceaselessly of “the next generation”. But, in Cumbria, where I’m an MP, voluntary activity and politics are generally driven by people over the age of 55. Every village seems to have a retired engineer attempting to build a community fibre-optic cable network and baffling the most confident civil servant with their points about microwave and cellular technology. Retired nurses and doctors are challenging psychiatric care provision and lead the “hospice-at-home” movement.
The same age group sends me a dozen emails a week about Equitable Life or the Forestry Commission, offering to save the Penrith cinema, proposing a project for Ethiopian coffee farmers or a music centre for locals with disabilities. They scrutinise our stance on Syria and our aid programmes in India. They examine business cases and government promises and expose incompetence, hypocrisy and laziness. They argue for braver policies. They are smart, wide-ranging in their interests, stubborn, experienced and relentless. They are also startlingly idealistic.
But we make little use of their knowledge and experience. Civil servants have long retired when they are at their peak. There are charities and government initiatives all over Britain – and, indeed, all over the world – which desperately need good people. The retired have immense experience and are often prepared to work as volunteers. But we are failing to match their talents to our needs; or our talents to their needs.
This reflects the culture of our century. If we lived in the Roman era, the driving goal of our culture might have been dignity; in the dark ages, honour, in the middle ages, atonement. Victorians found peculiar satisfaction in empire and war, nature, reason and nation.
But ours is the first generation to draw our deepest fulfilment from our own descendants. Some of my friends imply that all that matters is what happens to their families, in the lives behind their own front doors. We have become reluctant to make sacrifices, except on the altar of our children. And what is the purpose of our children’s lives? Their own children. And so on, all the way down.
But instead of focusing overwhelmingly on the interests of “the next generation”, politicians should give more space to the previous generation. We should begin by allowing older people to take far more political responsibility in local communities. This doesn’t just mean becoming a parish councillor, which is often frustrating because of crippling regulations and the lack of real freedom to act. It means giving them jobs with real responsibility and power. If this were France or the United States, for example, with directly elected local mayors and powerful parish government, more retired people would be transforming our lives – and occasionally backing policies that meet the needs of older people.
It sometimes feels as though young people see themselves as uniquely deserving and uniquely victimised. But over the last three years, walking around my constituency and staying with different families, I have found that the most shocking scenes are in the houses of older people. I stayed with a single mother on an estate, in which 20 per cent of the households had a family member who had been to jail. There were extreme mental disorders and drug use in one group of houses was staggering. But there was also such a strong sense of irony, energy and of solidarity among the younger people (they knew every child, it seemed, on every corner).
It was when I walked into the house of an elderly man, who had not been outside for months, who received about two hours of visits a week in total, who was not feeding himself adequately, and who, it was clear, could not bathe or move properly in and out of the bathroom, that I found something more disturbing than I have seen in some of Asia’s poorest villages.
Our older population is the most impressive, self-sacrificing and imaginative part of our entire community. They are almost the last people who belong to political parties, the last who maintain our churches, the most generous and dedicated supporters of all our charities. They are our last fragile link to deeper history.
They are also people who can find themselves in extremes of poverty(fuel poverty, in particular), of isolation, of loneliness and of hopelessness in the wait for death, unimaginable to anyone younger. We are not respecting them and, as a society, we are not making use of their extraordinary talents.
It can sometimes feel almost embarrassing to focus on the challenges facing older people. But we could do so much more. Take hearing aids. We have gone through a revolution in wireless, microphone and battery technology in the last 20 years (look at your smart phone). But most people who are hard of hearing find that their hearing aids struggle to cut out ambient noise. They are isolated, their families are infuriated: they are deprived of one of the most important parts of any human relationship – the ability to have a conversation. There are many possible solutions. (How about a version of the bodyguards’ technology: a wireless microphone on the speaker’s lapel, transmitting to an earpiece?) But the investment that goes into addressing a problem that afflicts more than 10 million people in this country is minuscule, compared with the investment that is poured into other consumer technology.
Also, we should guarantee disabled access at every mainline rail station. (At Penrith, if you have mobility problems, you have to be pushed directly across a line on which trains travel at 125 miles per hour.) We should invest in smart grids, which can allow the elderly to reduce their energy bills and stay warm. We should develop new “tele-health” technologies, to support the elderly in their homes. We should be much more imaginative in using community hospitals, voluntary organisations and technology (including live videolinks over broadband) to overcome isolation and loneliness.
If we are looking for redemption for the young, and a mission for our society, it could be in our care for the older generation: finding fulfilment and delight in relationships with the elderly and in helping the elderly. We should admire and learn from them. This is possible. On every street corner in Kabul, you can see a teenager in stonewashed jeans raising his head from scowling at his phone and moving with genuine delight to talk to an older person. I would like to see us begin to do the same here.
Instead of building a world that’s only fit for our children, I would like to see us building a world fit for our parents.