Headlines: October 12th, 2004

The real needs of older people are not being heard because of stereotypes that paint them as problematically sick and vulnerable, heroically young and active or comically grumpy like television character Victor Meldrew, according to a new report.The study, from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, also says that professional attitudes that treat old age as if it were ‘an illness for which there is no cure’ are no less damaging and it challenges service planners and providers to do better.

“Older people shaping policy and practice” is based on a four-year research programme overseen by a steering group of older people and it draws on findings from 18 different research projects. Its central message is that older people must be involved in planning the policies and services that affect them to ensure they make an enduring contribution to improving the quality of life in old age. It was launched alongside a set of recommendations from a JRF Task Group on Housing, Money, and Care for Older People. They call for a strengthening of the rights of older people and steps to tackle age discrimination.

The report warns that many policy and practice assumptions are still based on the view of older people as a burden, a problem to be solved or as ‘patients’. It says an equally inappropriate response is to portray ‘successful ageing’ as a continued ability to compete with younger people in physically demanding activities.

The report calls on policy makers to re-think their planning and provision by recognising that communities, community organisations, family and friends are the major players in supporting older people and that older people themselves should have the strongest voice in deciding what makes a good quality service – and whether it is being delivered. It says services need to be more holistic, rather than trying to deal with individual symptoms or problems and that they should be more adaptable to older people’s changing needs.

The research programme suggests older people themselves can often make the biggest difference to each other’s quality of life if they receive better support than currently available. Even if health and social services were better resourced and totally approachable, the research shows, professionals could only deliver a small part of what most people need to live well in later life.

The report praises those social services departments that are involving older people in service planning and it welcomes initiatives like the Better Government for Older People programme but it argues that neither policy makers nor the public have got to grips with the implications of living in an ‘ageing’ society where people over retirement age will outnumber younger people below school leaving age.