Constitutional reform: an opportunity to respond to the opportunities and challenges of an ageing society

Constitutions have the potential to give a voice to minority groups in society. Ilona Haslewood from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation explains how a constitution could improve the quality of life for older people. She mentions how thinking about constitutions will give us an opportunity to collectively think about what kind of older age we want for ourselves.

(Credit: Michael Kappel, CC BY-NC 2.0)

(Credit: Michael Kappel, CC BY-NC 2.0)

Similar to many other western countries today, the UK’s population is ageing: on average we are living longer, and are predicted to live longer still. This ought to mean that becoming older should be seen as a valuable part of life, not only as loss and decline. It is clear, however, that this perception is still far from universal. It can be very uncomfortable to face up to our own ageing, much of the detail may as yet be unknown too, so we often simply avoid thinking about it.

Many of those who do think about this tend to voice concerns that the growing proportion of older people will become an impossible burden, especially at a time of shrinking public spending and increasing demands on younger people. At the more extreme end, older people get blamed for ‘hoarding’ wealth and enjoying retirement at the expense of younger generations.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s work on an ageing society focuses on those who don’t have a good quality of life and who lack the power to have themselves heard. We know that there are many older people, particularly, but not exclusively, among the oldest, who have high care and support needs, perhaps because of a severe disability (around 40% of people over 85), loneliness (46% of those aged 80+) or dementia (estimated at 670 000 people in the UK). The majority of these people are women, as are their carers.

The evidence from JRF’s work on improving quality of life for older people, especially those with high support needs, points to seven key principles which, taken together, offer a vision of a better life in older age. If we are successful in applying these principles, older people, who are the real experts in their own lives, will become part of the solution, rather than the problem, in adjusting to an ageing society.

These principles present challenges for us all, against which we should test our daily actions both in our professional roles and in our private lives, as individuals and as members of the community. They require us to:

  1. Use positive images and balanced narratives to challenge ageist assumptions
  2. See and hear the individual and take account of the diversity of older people
  3. Place meaningful and rewarding relationships at the heart of all support
  4. Create opportunities for contribution, thereby using the assets, strengths and resources of older people in a mutual or reciprocal way
  5. Treat everyone as citizens: equal stakeholders with both rights and responsibilities, not passive recipients of care
  6. Enable the individual and collective voices of older people with high support needs to be heard and given power
  7. Be open to radical and innovative approaches, but also consider how often simple changes can improve lives.

The challenges do not demand anything extraordinary, quite the opposite: they are what all of us are likely to want, no matter how old we are, where we live or what conditions we have. The greatest challenge of all is of course applying them in the practical and the everyday, as well as in broader, more strategic, matters. Our work offers ideas and examples of both.

In a recent blog post at this site asserting the rights of LGBT people, Lance Price pointed out that ‘although constitutions can be valuable weapons in the global fight for equality they can never be relied upon by themselves to protect the rights of minorities’. This rings true for older people too: rights often represent the minimum. But having that minimum would mean an improvement for many today who are not treated as equal stakeholders, even in their own lives. But other than being a means to guaranteeing fundamental rights, constitutions serve as a place where we declare our collective aspirations and fundamental values. The seven principles (or challenges) can help articulate these.

The current system of publicly available support is clearly failing and individuals, families, communities, as well as the market and the state are underprepared for an ageing population. Change is inevitable, so the question rather is, how will it happen: can we negotiate a new social contract between all these parties, to set out our rights and responsibilities as we get older? What will this look like: for example, will it bring clarity on what we can reasonably expect from publicly-funded services and what we will need to take responsibility for ourselves? Will it be a just deal, taking into account the many forms of inequality that exist today?

What hangs in the balance is a better life for all of us. The vision already exists: thinking about a new constitution is a good opportunity to use this vision to collectively work out what we want and what we are prepared to do to get there.

Note: this piece represents the views of the author and not those of Democratic Audit or the LSE. Please read our comments policy before posting. This piece originally appeared on the Constitution UK blog and can be found here. The shortened URL for this link is: http://buff.ly/1h25cZy

ilona Ilona Haslewood is a research and policy programme manager at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, focusing on the challenges and opportunities of living in an ageing society. She leads on programmes aimed at improving quality of life for older people with high support needs and understanding everyday support and kindness in communities.

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