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Building with mobility scooters

Five things people get wrong about later life

There are many common perceptions about ageing, however these are often not based on evidence.

Amy McSweeney breaks down these common misconceptions and discusses the facts behind the myths. 

A big part of our work at Ageing Better is to build the evidence of what works to support people to enjoy later life.

I often find myself correcting misconceptions I hear about ageing, or telling people that there really is evidence to disprove the latest myth they’ve heard about old people.

There are many more than five myths about older people, and later life in general, but these are my personal top five things people often get wrong:

1. That ageing treats us all the same

Many of the inequalities we see in life are exacerbated by age.

Take your education and your family background. Not having been to university, or being born in to a family where nobody worked, continues to determine how long you’ll live, how healthy you’ll be, and even the speed at which you walk

It doesn’t matter if you receive the same state pension of £164 a week as everyone else, those initial social determinants have a major impact on your quality of later life.

That’s why it’s so important that, even though we’re talking about ageing, we adopt a life-course approach to tackling inequality.

2. That everyone has the same access to the state pension

That £164 you might get every week is not a sort of universal basic income. Individuals are intended to have topped it up with private sources of income.

It’ll come as no surprise that women are short changed when it comes to the pension system, but this is not just because their state pension age has increased.

Women are less likely to meet the threshold for automatic enrolment, more likely to work part-time and take time out of work – for example to care for a loved one. This resulted in only 36% of women aged 65-69 being able to claim the full state pension in 2014. And women who work part-time are no better off in retirement than women who never worked at all.

The cumulative disadvantage that builds over women’s lifetimes results in them being more likely to live in poverty and more likely to live in housing that harms their health.

3. That more older workers means fewer jobs for young people

Research from the OECD has shown that this is not true. In fact, it’s an example of the ‘lump of labour’ fallacy. Some countries with age-diverse workforces have better youth employment rates than those without.

Staying in work for longer, if you are able to do so, is good for your mental and physical health, as well as your finances in the future. The potential benefits to the economy, as well as savings to the NHS and social care, are significant.

Age-friendly employment is a win-win for everyone.

4. That older people should downsize and free up more homes available for families

We can’t plan our future housing needs on the assumption of a mass exodus from three bed semi-detached houses to bungalows or care homes.

In practice, only a small minority of people over 65 move, and less than half are downsizing. This is partly because people are often happy where they live. But a big concern for many is that there aren’t enough suitable homes near them that they could move into if they wanted.

So, in addition to building new lifetime homes, we need to improve our current housing stock to enable people to live in their own homes independently for as long as possible.

This is not only what people want but also cost effective for the NHS and other public services. One estimate put the cost of poor housing to the NHS as £624 million in first year treatment costs.

5. That old age means loneliness

Loneliness can have a real impact on people in later life, and it is right to dedicate resources towards prevention, but most older people wouldn’t describe themselves as lonely. In fact, older people are less likely to report feeling lonely than younger generations.

We know that certain factors, like volunteering and staying educationally and physically active, help reduce loneliness. Many people in later life take advantage of any opportunities, but others don’t feel able to do so.

It’s important that we recognise the contributions older people make now, and the potential contributions they could make in the future – if we build inclusivity in to the design of our homes, communities and workplaces.

Amy McSweney
Evidence Assistant