Friday, 25 June 2010

Facing the challenge of an ageing population

Our ageing population is one of the greatest challenges facing society this century. To combat that challenge, Age Concern and Help the Aged have joined forces to form Age UK. Actors Sir Ian McKellen, Brian Cox and Eleanor Bron explain why they're offering their support

The veteran British actor Sir Ian McKellen may be 70, but he's still working hard. He's currently playing Estragon in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot in the West End, and is preparing to resurrect his role of Gandalf in the new films of the Hobbit, which will begin shooting sometime this year.

"What I enjoy most about being old, is not feeling old," says McKellen. "I believe people should be allowed to go on working. I'm 70, I'm an actor, and I work. Plenty of people can go on working or share jobs."

The default retirement age in the UK is currently set at 65. McKellen isn't the only one who believes that should change. Age UK, the new charity which sees Age Concern join forces with Help the Aged, Age Scotland‚ Age Cymru and Age NI, is campaigning to end age discrimination in the workplace. The newly merged organisation will present one, unified voice to challenge ageist prejudice in society‚ provide services that address market failures and support the public and private sectors to design age-friendly products and services. And McKellen has been brought on board for its first ever TV advertising campaign.

"I don't do commercials," says McKellen. "But for someone of my age, a charity such as this is a good thing, so when they asked me to help, I wanted to."

Alongside climate change, population ageing is the greatest global transition to face society this century. "None of us are exempt from ageing," says 63-year-old actor Brian Cox, who is also taking part in the campaign. "We tend to be such a youth-oriented culture … but everybody's going to get old." Cox says that, as a young man, he was always cast in older roles. "Sometimes I'd be playing parts that were maybe 20 years older, and I didn't have the experience – the great thing about age is experience, and I hope a bit of wisdom, as well."

At 72, actor Eleanor Bron says age is "something I have rather a lot of". Like McKellen, she had never done a television advert before, but when the 64-year-old director Richard Loncraine approached her, she felt "this is worth doing", and like all the actors involved in the campaign donated her time for free.

"We are all surviving longer and so age is becoming a very important issue," she explains. "It is very important to keep the communication between the generations and I'm afraid in the society we live in today that's becoming more difficult."

The lives of people in later life should be improved – and that's what Age UK is doing. Ageing isn't something to be ashamed of – it should be celebrated, even though it undoubtedly poses unprecedented challenges, care being one of them.

Helping people to stay in their own home

McKellen supported his stepmother to live at home until she was 100. "She was entirely dependent on other people's help," he explains. "Now, if you've got great neighbours, that's terrific, but if you don't and you're a little bit nervous about using social services because you've never done that in your life, then you need someone like a big organisation to come along and say: 'It's all right, there are things we can do, and here's someone you can talk to and think of as a friend.' It's all perfectly simple, but it needs the cash to roll it along."

Age UK has a welter of advice on these sorts of issues, and not just for older people. It is equally keen to support their carers - as this video explains (click on 'help for carers').

Age UK also fills some of the gaps left by government. Last year, its "more money in your pocket" campaign helped unravel the confusion around the benefits you are entitled to as you get older, and secured more than £100m in unclaimed money for pensioners and their carers. One such source of often untapped support is attendance allowance. To find out more about that, click here.

Reducing isolation and loneliness

Age UK seems to be tapping into people's natural concern for old people – because we all know some," explains McKellen. "If older people begin to feel isolated and don't have families close by them, then they need a family substitute and that's what society can provide. If the government isn't going to, then that's fine, as long as charities are given free rein and have enough money. I'm just encouraging people to do what I do and support Age UK."

Age UK takes simple steps to reduce the loneliness experienced by over a million older people through their befriending services, grants to community groups to buy vehicles and provide door to door transport.

Age UK is also the only UK charity to focus research funds on a range of issues affecting us in later life and, among other things, has been involved in the discovery of the gene mutation that causes early onset Alzheimer's. Research funded by Age UK has led to the potential for a stroke-busting drug and pioneering work to uncover the causes of poor wound-healing in older people.

To find out more about Age UK's services, call the information and advice line on 0800 169 29 39 or go online.

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