Last week’s call for a Minister for Older People shone a spotlight on an expanding part of our society facing increasing problems. Political reporter Bill Jacobs talks to people working with and for the not-so-young in East Lancashire about how our pensioners fare compared with their counterparts abroad and the issues we might all have to deal with as we get older.

  • NO-ONE expects Tony Blair to fulfil his wish of becoming Prime Minister again at 77, like Winston Churchill, or anyone else to become national leader at 76 like Nelson Mandela. But those working with the elderly in East Lancashire agree older people need a voice that is heard.

Pensionable age may be a requirement for the ruling elite of China but in the UK it is all too often a passport to poverty, deprivation, loneliness and misery.

While not everyone agrees with a cross-party group of MPs that a designated Minister for Older People is the answer, they all want more respect, more opportunities for and more attention paid to our growing army of elderly — due to rise by 28 per cent by 2035.

Former national boss of Age Concern and chairman of Burnley Liberal Democrats Gordon Lishman makes no bones about their needs: “If the problem is poverty, the answer is money.

“If the problem is lack of dignity in health and social care, then the answer is making that a priority for those who provide it. If the problem is social isolation then the answer is doing something to tackle it. Most older people do not have the power to make themselves heard.

“One of the biggest problems is age discrimination in work where the United States of America is streets ahead of us. Their anti-age discrimination act has been in force for 30 years and works. Here older people find it hard to get the jobs they need to earn the extra money to pay their bills and enjoy life.”

All round the world countries are grappling with a growing ‘grey’ population with varying success. A report for the Royal British Legion and Age UK warns pensioners moving to other European countries they could lose out on welfare provision, free health care and pensions.

A study for the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service charity rates Britain’s care for the elderly only third in a comparison with Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands.

The key problems were isolation from the community, low net income and age-discrimination.

Oxford University research highlights Scandinavian countries giving pensioners a basic income regardless of contributions history, unlike the UK, and better local community and day-care facilities for the elderly everywhere else in Europe.

It found better family support in southern European countries but worse comprehensive welfare provision there than in Northern Europe, including the UK, where social isolation of the old was a bigger problem Pauline Walsh, chief officer of Blackburn Age UK, said: “There is a real need for a stronger voice for older people at the heart of government.”

She highlighted problem areas as isolation and loneliness, affordable and accessible transport and fear of crime which requires visible policing and reassurance for older residents.

Her local chairman Ian Woolley focused on communal activities for senior citizens and the work the organisation does including health and fitness classes, community meeting places and IT lessons for the elderly.

Geraldine Moore, chief officer of Lancashire Age UK covering Ribble Valley, Pendle, Rossendale and Hyndburn, targets accessible, convenient and affordable transport and the need for key health facilities to be near the old: “Closing wards at Burnley General Hospital makes sense to a young planner but not to an old gentleman in Barnoldswick who has to spend three hours on the bus to see his sick wife for an hour in the Royal Blackburn.

“A meeting in Nelson recently made clear East Lancashire older people’s priorities include places to meet to reduce social isolation; better and more convenient health, welfare and social care services; and more activities they can join in with.”

Former Burnley Labour MP Peter Pike said: “We no longer have paper boys and milkmen who kept an eye on older people, provided them with company and checked up on them. That’s why we had that dreadful case in June where pensioner Maureen Wood’s body was not found for 10 months.

“I don’t expect to see Tony Blair doing a Churchill, but it does show the problems of leaving the job at such a young age. There is a culture of youth now where the old are no longer listened to and have stopped being seen as ‘wise elders’ but marginalised as a nuisance.”

While 64-year-old Mr Lishman and 65-year-old Blackburn MP Jack Straw are sceptical about the power of a cross-departmental Minister for Older People, we will not see a pensioner Prime Minister succeeding 46-year-old David Cameron or a post-60 Politburo replacing our ever-more youthful Cabinet.

But as the state pension rises to 68 by 2046 to cope with the ‘greying’ of the population, perhaps the answer is more over 60s in positions of power in politics and the workplace to ensure those of us approaching or in retirement enjoy a profitable and pleasant last few years of life.