What do a ticking time bomb, a silver tsunami and a population apocalypse all have in common? No, they aren’t the latest plotline from an episode of Sherlock but rather they are phrases used to describe the fact that we are living longer. They are highly negative descriptions of a reality that most of us would or should want to celebrate – we are dying older and healthier than at any time in Scottish history. So why the negativity? Why is it that so much of our cultural and political discourse about old age paints such a dark and depressing picture?
Old age is something which should be valued, but alarmist attitudes fail to recognise the benefits and potential of older age and feed into the myth that getting old is about losing something rather than gaining something new and potentially positive. Old age is seen as a challenge rather than an opportunity.
Ageism as a concept was first coined in 1969, and describes a context where there is discrimination against, contempt for, abuse, stereotyping, and avoidance of older people.
Everywhere you look there are negative stereotypes which perpetuate the myth that older people are incapable and dependent, have nothing to contribute but rather are a burden and a drain on society. We see this in many of the current debates about social care and health which count up the costs an ageing population results in but fail to recognise that over 90% of care delivered in this country comes from the hands of people who are themselves old thus saving the taxpayer countless millions.
In Scotland I am sure we would like to believe that we treat all peoples as equal, regardless of colour, creed, disability, sexual orientation and we have indeed made great strides in addressing discrimination and hate. But have we made the same progress against negative stereotyping and discrimination which is based on age? I think not – why is it that a child in receipt of residential care will have nearly double the amount of public resource allocated to their care than an older person of 90 in a care home? Why is it that countless individuals talk about not even getting the chance of an interview if they are over 60 and are seeking employment? Why is it that at the age of 65 people who are accessing social care support move from being an adult onto being an ‘older person’ and in some areas such as mental health services they tell us they suddenly find the level of their support diminishes? Do we feel it is adequate that for thousands of older people in the last few months of their life that we allocate the sum of £3.85 an hour to provide 24/7 intensive nursing care home support? That’s less than the cost of a packet of 10 cigarettes!
Many of us feel that Scotland needs to address the challenges of the silent, pervasive and systemic age discrimination which impacts on the lives of countless of our fellow citizens. We are not alone. Last September the United Nation’s Expert on Older Age, Rosa Kornfeld-Matte, stated that current international provisions are not sufficient to fully protect older people’s rights, and she called on states to consider a new convention. A few weeks later I chaired initial discussions with interested parties to explore whether Scotland needs its own Convention of the Rights of Older Persons and/or an Older Persons Commissioner as Wales and Northern Ireland have.
The creation of a convention for older people in Scotland would not add new laws and rights but would go a long way to ensure equal treatment for older citizens, not least by demanding adequate financial provision for that group of the population.
Equally an Older Person’s Commissioner would be a champion and advocate for the human rights and equal treatment of older persons. Older Scots should not be the victims of discrimination in employment, in accessing public services, in social care or in hospital treatment.
The time has come for us in Scotland to join the campaign to create a framework of rights which recognises the distinctive discriminatory experience, both at societal and personal levels, which all too many older Scots endure and experience.
We need to take off the heather-tinted glasses and face up to the reality that Scotland is as ageist a nation as many others in the world but rather than just recognise this we need to act and both a Convention and Commissioner for Older Persons would be positive steps to take. Human rights do not have a use by date – they do not diminish with age.
Dr Donald Macaskill
Chief Executive, Scottish Care
Last Updated on 24th March 2017 by Scottish Care