The Blog

Time to Meet the Challenges of Our Ageing Society

We are living through one of the biggest changes in human history, not just in Britain, globally too: we are living longer.

We are living through one of the biggest changes in human history, not just in Britain, globally too: we are living longer.

Much of the reporting of this global transformation is pessimistic and couched in negative terms. As advances in science and technology enable us to live longer, healthier lives, we are warned of a £30bn black hole in NHS finances by 2021 and unsustainable pensions. While the challenges are being loudly proclaimed, there is an eerie silence on what we are going to do about it. As the Lords Committee on Demographic Change chided, government is "wilfully" unprepared.

This month, by way of response, I have launched two reports which I hope provide some of the answers and the starting point for a bigger conversation. One is the product of a year's work chairing a working group for the Liberal Democrats on the ageing society, and the other a project with Demos and experts in the care field on a Commission on the Future of Residential Care. The overriding message from both is that we need to change the way we think about ageing and realise sooner rather than later that it isn't about what happens to other people. It's about what happens to us. Ageing is about our future selves and how we want society to adapt and embrace the profound changes that longer lives bring across the board.

So, put bluntly, we need a plan of action. My report for the party "Age Ready Britain" offers a range of proposals to make this a reality, but the priorities for me are clear. First, given the enormity of the task, Government need to be proactive, leading the way in changing our approach to ageing. For us to live longer healthier and happier lives, we all need to start doing the right things right now, whether it is to build our physical health, boost our mental and psychological resilience or manage our finances for the long term. So, as CentreForum recommended in my report with them earlier this Summer, the promotion of wellbeing needs to become a measurable goal of government to improve the lives of people at every age. But this alone won't be enough. To drive the agenda forward we need a Cabinet Committee on Wellbeing and Ageing, working with a Minister for Ageing to make sure that every part of Government and civil society is doing its bit to help prepare us to become an older society.

Next, we need a new deal for the UK's 7 million unpaid carers, so I'm calling for employers to offer 5 days of paid "care leave" to put an end to the situation where hundreds of thousands of carers are forced to give up work because their employers can't offer the flexibility they need. Alongside this, Liberal Democrats have already announced our intention to introduce a "carers passport" to support carers to get a better deal from the NHS, and a carers bonus to financially recognise the immeasurable contribution carers make.

Then we need to make sure that we have homes that enhance our lives at every age. My work with Demos has set out the scale of the challenge - we will need more housing with care in the coming years, and we need to transform the image and the reality of residential care. We need to put in place incentives for care providers to build, and strengthen the rights of tenants. And to challenge the fear filled perceptions people have of residential care we need to introduce a quality standard for staff, with a licence to practice and a living wage that recognises their real value.

Having spent the last year looking at the challenges, I am optimistic about the future of ageing - for myself and for us all. The fact that we are living longer should be cause for celebration, and holds huge opportunities. But we can no longer afford to sleepwalk into this new world - we need a broad, open and honest discussion, and we need action. None of us are getting any younger.