Ready for Ageing? How are policy makers approaching the challenges of an ageing population?

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The extension of healthy life expectancy is a key aim of the Active Ageing Strategy 2016-2021.
The extension of healthy life expectancy is a key aim of the Active Ageing Strategy 2016-2021.

Population ageing has been identified as a major societal challenge common to most European countries, particularly in terms of health and social care provision. In view of this, the European Commission has encouraged Member States to have high-level strategies in place. For example, it recommends policies to improve the sustainability and efficiency of social and health care systems; policies that promote health throughout the life course and encourage prevention and rehabilitation in order to reduce demand for long-term care. Commission initiatives to inspire and support Member States have included the European Year of Active Ageing and Solidarity between the Generations 2012 and the European Innovation Partnership on Active and Healthy Ageing.

Is the UK ready for ageing?

In 2012 a House of Lords Select Committee examined the implications of an ageing UK population for citizens and public policy in the near future – the decade 2020 to 2030. Its report stated:

The UK population is ageing rapidly, but we have concluded that the Government and our society are woefully underprepared…The Government have not looked at ageing from the point of view of the public nor considered how policies may need to change to equip people better to address longer lives.

In response the government proposed action in four key areas:

  • Extending working lives: abolition of the state retirement age.
  • Secure retirement income: introduction of a flat rate, single tier state pension from April 2016.
  • The health and social care system: a Care Bill (applying mainly to England) to make the care system clearer and fairer and to provide a cap on the costs for social care and a new universal deferred payment scheme.
  • Supporting independence: funding for local Home Improvement Agencies (England) and a National Planning Policy Framework (England).

Is Northern Ireland ready for ageing?

In 2011, AgeNI called on the newly-formed Executive to put demographic ageing at the heart of budget planning. Referring to the draft budget it stated: ‘By 2030, it is projected that there will be more than 130,000 people over 80 in Northern Ireland and yet the Executive has failed to demonstrate how it will manage now, let alone in 20 years.’

The Programme for Government commitments to extend legislation prohibiting unfair discrimination based on age, and on reforming and modernising health and social care, led to a process of review and consultation. However, by 2014, after delays and financial cutbacks in relation to these commitments AgeNI stated: ‘in the context of an ageing society, more needs to be done, not less’.  A year later, a Queen’s University study considered that, to date, government policy responses had, in general, been slow to catch up with demographic change. Whilst there was some evidence of constructive planning, the authors stressed that more must be done and soon.

As the 2011-16 mandate ended, proposed age discrimination legislation was still awaited although a long anticipated Active Ageing Strategy 2016-21 was finally published. This is aimed at supporting the overarching objectives of extending healthy life expectancy, the development of streamlined cost-effective services and the reduction of inequalities. Around this time and following criticism from the Assembly Public Accounts Committee, Ministerial statements reaffirmed the commitment to reform of the health and social care system building on the directions set in motion by Transforming Your Care and the Donaldson Report. Ministerial statements also proposed the setting up of an expert panel and a ‘Transformation Fund’ to guide and implement change.

Despite some promising policy developments to address the consequences of population ageing at national and local level, age sector organisations continue to call on politicians to fully face up to the impact this significant demographic change will have on society and to present a vision and coherent strategy not only for the immediate future, but in the long-term.