Sick and tired of our later life health problems? | Louise Ansari

Louise Ansari

In tune with Health for Care, the NHS Confederation-led social care campaign, Louise Ansari, director of communications and influencing at the Centre for Ageing Better, reinforces the urgent need for a properly funded and effective social care system.

We are living for longer, but what kind of life have we got to look forward to? Will we be stuck in a chair or skydiving at 80? Given the changing age structure of the UK, major changes are needed to ensure our later lives are enjoyable, with fewer health issues and more help to manage those we’ve got.

A significant and increasing proportion of people are managing multiple health conditions and mobility problems from mid-life onwards. Almost one in five (21 per cent) of 50-64 year olds have a long-term health condition such as high blood pressure, arthritis or breathing problems. Type 2 diabetes among people aged 55-64 has doubled in the last 20 years. Nearly a tenth of all men aged between 55-59 find activities of daily living like washing, preparing food or going to the loo difficult – and this rises incrementally to over a third of men aged 80 and over. 

Away from the impersonal statistics, think about your friends, family, colleagues and even yourself – who is coping with illness? And importantly, do they see it as something inevitable to be suffered as they grow old?

My own mother died at the age of 76. For years before, she refused to get treatment for painful foot and ankle problems that meant she really struggled to get to the local shops. She thought that if she went to hospital she’d ‘never come out again’, and there was nothing we could do to convince her otherwise. What a change from the strong woman who did heavy household chores without batting an eyelid and loved a game of tennis in the park at the weekends.

It could have been different for my mum in her later years. Apart from anything else, having an easily walkable environment with seats and public toilets would have helped her navigate the weekly trip to the shops. She was not at all well off – she lived in a council bungalow – but she was positive about life and enjoyed it.

Our latest report, The state of ageing in 2019, shows that for ordinary people the fact is that if you’re poorer you’re more likely to live your later years in ill health. Almost half of the poorest men aged 50 and over have arthritis compared with just a quarter of the wealthiest. For women, it is 66 per cent of the poorest compared with 42 per cent of the wealthiest. These kind of differences are true for many other health conditions too.

Turning a blind eye and saying ‘that’s just the way it is’ is not an option. What can we do about so much ill health in later life, and so much unfairness between rich and poor in how healthy their later years are? None of it is inevitable. 

Radical change is needed to give us the chance to have healthy later lives. People need support to prevent and manage long-term conditions including reducing smoking and drinking less, as well as having access to healthy food and the opportunity and infrastructure to be more physically active.

Rather than relying on the health system to patch us up when we become ill, we need to address the underlying causes of ill health and the stark inequalities in health outcomes. This means helping people have enough money to get by, having housing that supports people to live well and independently as they age, and having a better design of our communities and environment.

And when we have difficulties with those everyday activities of daily living like bathing, dressing or climbing the stairs, a properly funded and effective social care system is essential to provide support to ensure people can continue to have a good quality of life.

However modest or ambitious our aims are in later life – from just getting to the shops and back a few times a week to travelling the world – we can’t let poor health stop that for people now, or for future generations.

Louise Ansari is director of communications and influencing at the Centre for Ageing Better. Follow the centre on Twitter @Ageing_Better

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