THE BLOG
30/10/2013 08:25 GMT | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

Why We Need to Change Our Rhetoric on the Elderly

I don't doubt that across the UK this winter, austerity measures and rising fuel costs will put many pensioners with limited means in a horribly difficult position. However, at the same time I don't doubt that the same difficult decision will be faced by many younger adults, and children too.

British Gas are trying to kill your grandmother. You might not have noticed, but it's true. Just look at the rhetoric surrounding the reporting of their impending 10% rise in fuel bills and suddenly it all becomes clear. Your dear nan and pops are like all pensioners in the world ever: weak and frail and poor. And when fuel prices rise they're all going to have to choose between heating and eating, death by pneumonia or malnutrition. Goodnight Grandma.

I appreciate that this is a situation facing many pensioners currently toeing the poverty line, or struggling below it, and that is hardly something to make light of. But in order for such rhetoric to have any impact it is necessary to make one thing perfectly clear: pensioners aren't all weak, they aren't all frail and, most importantly, they certainly aren't all poor.

In recent weeks announcements by British Gas, SSE and Scottish Power of dramatically increasing fuel bills clashed head on with Alan Milburn's report on social mobility, which argued that the elderly aren't carrying their fair share of the austerity burden. On the one hand are claims that the so-called cost of living crisis has hit the vulnerable hardest, including the elderly, and on the other we note that while Cameron looks to slash benefits for under-25s, pensioners continue to enjoy free travel and winter fuel subsidies regardless of their income.

And it's that point, about non-means tested benefits for the elderly, which really needs to be stressed, because it is in danger of being drowned out by the wave of current rhetoric that sees the terms weak, frail and poor applied universally to the elderly, regardless of their income or circumstance.

From cradle to 60 there seems to be no end to the circumstances that people attribute to wealth level, whether it's the education you receive, your job prospects or your tendency to commit crimes. Why is it that once people hit 60 their personal wealth doesn't seem to factor into the equation, when for the preceding ages it seems to be all anyone can talk about?

I don't doubt that across the UK this winter, austerity measures and rising fuel costs will put many pensioners with limited means in a horribly difficult position. However, at the same time I don't doubt that the same difficult decision will be faced by many younger adults, and children too. I also don't doubt that many old people will be perfectly able to heat themselves adequately this winter. Believe it or not, just as young people can sometimes be rich, or at least comfortable, the elderly can sometimes be comfortable too. Sometimes, they can even be rich.

According to Age UK 16% of pensioners live in poverty. However, the latest government statistics suggest that 15% of working-age adults live in poverty, with 17% of children. Statistically, the elderly are no greater sufferers of poverty than anyone else, so why the special treatment? And why does it matter?

It matters because every time the elderly are collectively painted as poor and incapable of surviving without help, both financial and otherwise, it makes them politically untouchable.

Just look at the efforts focused on reducing welfare. Cuts are being made here there and everywhere, but the numerous subsidies handed out to pensioners that are in no way means tested continue unaltered. Of course a pensioner struggling to make ends meet should receive a subsidy to help them keep warm through winter. But a wealthy pensioner who can afford their own fuel bills, and then some, shouldn't be getting the same discount. There are even tales of those who have tried to give the benefit that they don't need back, but the government isn't having any of that, thank you very much.

Deficit-reducing cuts need to be made, and they are being made, but this needs to be done across the board so that every individual is carrying the share of the burden that they can reasonably manage. That might mean helping poorer pensioners even more, and it certainly means helping wealthy pensioners a little less. But that change isn't going to happen until we change our rhetoric on the elderly, so that the terms 'poor' and 'vulnerable' refer not to the wealthy pensioner but rather to the 'poor' and 'vulnerable' of all ages.

We all have to share the burden of deficit reduction. And yes, if you can manage it, that means you too, Grandma.