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Older man sitting on chair in home

We are living longer, but we must make sure we are also living better

As a society we are woefully underprepared for our longer lives. But we must work together to seize the opportunities of a good later life.

The government has identified ageing as one of the four grand challenges. Getting the 'how' right is what really matters.

We are living longer than our grandparents’ generations. Someone born in 1914 had just a 1 in 100 chance of living until 100. Today, it’s 1 in 3.

This is remarkable – a combination of advances in medicine and improving standards in living and public health.

Yet debates about ageing are dominated by rising pension and healthcare costs. Later life is portrayed by charities and the media as a time of decline, misery and loneliness. People fret about ageing and being 'too old'.

We must think differently to make the most of longer lives. As a society we are woefully underprepared for this demographic change. We need urgent action if we are to catch up and avoid entrenching inequality within generations for many years to come.

It is hugely welcome, then, that the prime minister provided some much-needed strategic direction this week on ageing. The goal she announced is, by 2035, to increase by five the years we stay happy, healthy and independent, as well as, crucially, reducing the scandalous health gap between the richest and poorest in our society.

Ageing is one of the four grand challenges identified by the government, and their approach rests on four pillars: finance and the economy; health and care; home and communities; and work and purpose. This makes sense.

Evidence shows that financial security, health, social relationships and a sense of purpose are essential ingredients of a good later life — they are also mutually reinforcing.

The government’s goal is good and ambitious – as ever, getting the 'how' right is what really matters.

We have to start working together to ensure current and future generations can enjoy a healthy, happy later life.

Housing needs a complete overhaul. By 2025, 8.2 million households will be headed by someone aged 65 and over. Bungalows, specialist housing and downsizing are often touted as solutions. What’s really needed is 'age-proof' building – homes that are adaptable and fit for purpose throughout people’s lifetimes, and that enable people to be healthy and independent as they age.

Our communities must respond. All local authorities should sign up to become Age-friendly Communities in order to help their residents age well – shaping places and plans from transport and green spaces to housing and health.

Living longer means working longer. Ensuring people can remain in good work is vital for the economy and mitigating future skills shortages. Employment benefits people financially and helps them remain social, healthy and active.

Too many workplaces are behind the curve on things like flexible working and adjustments which can help people manage health conditions. Recruitment processes often disadvantage older candidates. All these things make a massive difference to older workers’ ability to stay in the labour market.

Businesses need encouragement to develop new services and products for the ageing population — designing kitchens and bathrooms that are inclusive and suitable for all ages. Consumers aged 50 or over spend around £314 billion a year — a potentially lucrative and untapped market.

Too often, ageing is a byword for burden — on individuals, families, or the state. I won’t pretend the solutions to such dramatic demographic change are always straightforward.

But we have to start working together to ensure current and future generations can enjoy a healthy, happy later life.

The government has shown leadership at a national level – but we all, the public, private and charitable sectors, have a collective responsibility and opportunity to make it happen.

The real grand challenge is seizing the opportunity of a good later life now.

First published in The Times.

Anna Dixon
Chief Executive