Mary Bright, Head of Social Affairs and Age Special Adviser at Phoenix Group, explains why tackling ‘care phobia’ is the key to unlocking health and wealth in later life
The famous nostrum that nothing in life is certain except death and taxes urgently needs updating for the 21st century. I would argue that the need for care should be added to that shortlist of certainties.
It’s a simple truth: all of us will either care or be cared for at some point, now or in the future. Yet while our society provides vast, efficient, and dedicated infrastructures for handling both death (life insurance, churches, celebrants, notaries, undertakers) and taxes (accountants, HR departments, lawyers, HMRC), care is very much the poor relation when it comes to infrastructure.
An uncoordinated and laissez-faire approach to care says a great deal about how our society works. Care is fundamental and it should be integral. Yet, for too long, the care sector has experienced a form of segregation.
Care in need of repair
The approach must change, urgently, because our current care model is not sustainable. It is barely coping with today’s demographic pressures, never mind those of tomorrow.
This is an avoidable tragedy. Just as we are breaking records in longevity, with the expectation of living longer than our parents and grandparents, our healthy life expectancy has stalled.
After 18 months of the global pandemic, issues of care, age and health have been pushed to the very top of the news agenda, with the Government recently announcing an overhaul of how social care in England is funded. The virus hit elderly care home residents particularly hard and the horror of what unfolded focused public attention on the elderly and on our ageing society. We are, in effect, living longer, but not healthier.
Some politicians have been fond of invoking comparisons between the COVID-19 pandemic and the country’s experiences during other major emergencies, including the Second World War.
But after the war, Britain did have a plan. It created the Welfare State with the laudable goal of providing security from ‘the cradle to the grave’. This model envisaged older people being dependent and supported by the state.
However, that approach is now being replaced, of necessity, by an increasing level of self-dependence. A dichotomy is emerging between welfare and well-being.
Indeed, it may no longer be feasible to rely on government to fund all of our income and medical needs in later life.
Our increasing longevity will make ‘save as you earn’ the almost universal model for later life funding. But government continues to have a responsibility and a crucial role to play in supporting change.
That’s because we need to fundamentally reimagine the ‘future of care’, challenging the received wisdom and thinking more holistically.
Over the last century, life expectancy at birth has, broadly, doubled. In the UK today, we have more people over the age of 65 than under the age of five. Over a quarter of people born today – more than one in four – can expect to live to 100.
These increases in life expectancy are a cause for celebration, but they are not enough on their own. We need to be more concerned with healthy ageing because the number of people requiring care is increasing every year and will continue to do so.
When it comes to healthy living in later life, everything we think and everything we currently do needs to change dramatically. The fabled grey pound, the vast spending power of our older citizens, is a potential firehose of funding to drive consumption and boost economic growth but it depends on ensuring that the population ages healthily.
In the UK today, we already have one million pensioners who are millionaires. That’s over a trillion pounds in assets – a third of the UK’s forecast GNP this year.
But our wealthy senior citizens are frugal and tend not to be spending their incomes. In the city of Manchester alone, the over-65s save £1.8 billion a year. (1)
So, why isn’t this wall of money finding its way into the economy?
In place of fear
One of the primary reasons is fear. Fear in the form of health concerns and anxiety about the provision of later life care. Let’s call it ‘care fear’ because it is one of the biggest, newest and most intractable phobias of our time. Care fear is the single factor behind this understandable, deep reluctance to spend.
There is huge potential to unlock this wealth but, right now, we lack ideas. In stark contrast to our super-preparedness to deal with death and taxes, this country currently has no plan to address these fears and free up that wealth.
But the opportunities in successfully tackling and treating ‘care fear’ are enormous. Freed from the symptoms of ‘care fear’, our over-75s would develop the confidence to live their life more fully and spend without the grim spectre of care costs haunting them.
That confidence-driven expenditure could add a full 2% to GDP over the next five years. (2) Better still, if the over-75s were happy to match the spending levels of their counterparts in the 65-75 age group, we may even boost economic growth by an incredible 8% over the next 20 years.
The formula for unlocking this opportunity and helping people live their lives with less fear of the future is simple and highly effective: Support people to age healthily and give them certainty about the costs of care. It is a compelling argument that benefits everyone right across our society.
Death and taxes are already certain, but we must also deliver that certainty around the costs of care and the expectation of healthy longevity.
As we emerge from the pandemic, let’s tackle the hidden scourge of ‘care fear’ and unlock these opportunities. Our health, wealth and happiness depend on it.