When I’m sixty-four, one of Paul McCartney’s earliest songs, inspired the title of our new public policy report. He was 16 at the time—and although perhaps not every teenager is as concerned with growing older, it’s something we all ponder at some time or another.
Throughout life, most people look to their partners, friends and family for practical and emotional support. These relationships play a particularly critical role in dealing with the pressures of older age, but can breakdown if they are not supported, with wide-ranging social and financial implications.
NPC has worked with Relate, a charity that provides relationship support, to investigate the importance of relationships in older age, the findings of which we launched yesterday evening at the House of Lords. We found ample evidence that relationships matter to older people—those with good quality relationships are happier, wealthier and healthier—but we also found that the government provides very little support in this area.
Although the government has taken action to address the healthcare and finances of older people, it has taken for granted the idea that the baby boomer generation, now moving into retirement, will look after each other in older age. This is significant because baby boomers are the largest wave of people to enter older age, with more celebrating their 65th birthday this year than ever before.
In addition to this huge demographic shift, research suggests that baby boomers will ‘do’ ageing differently from their parents. We uncovered some worrying statistics about the state of their relationships: while the number of divorces has fallen in most age groups, for baby boomers it has increased steadily over the past 10 years. And in a Relate poll of 1,390 over 50s, 83% believed relationships were the most important requirement for a happy retirement, but 1 in 5 older people lacked the confidence to form new friendships and relationships.
The state of relationships—be they with partners, family or friends—has a profound impact on the fabric of our society. We know that health and wellbeing are directly affected by relationships, and by building and supporting people’s relationships we can prevent many of the issues that come with older age.
For example, good quality relationships are associated with lower rates of cardio-vascular diseases, which cost the UK £29bn a year in healthcare expenditure and lost productivity. Similarly, positive social engagement with friends and family can promote good health practices, like quitting smoking and eating a healthy diet. Therefore, positive relationships are not only good for individuals, but good for society too. Maintaining them is a matter for people’s private lives, but there is also a role for government.
NPC and Relate are calling on the government to take action on two fronts. First, we need a new and comprehensive ageing strategy, and second we need a Minister for Ageing who can drive this strategy through. Currently, responsibility for ageing is split between the Department for Work and Pensions, Department for Education and the Department for Heath. The time is ripe for a Minister who can work across departments to own this issue and drive through much needed reforms.