Challenging a culture of blame

In a week which saw an Institute for Fiscal Studies report highlighting the growing disparity of wealth/ poverty between young and old, we also saw tabloid headlines about ‘Millions of older people failing to adapt their homes’ in response to ILC-UK’s latest report.

Why did I publicly object to this latter headline? Does such language actually matter?

I strongly believe that it does matter as it contributes to a growing culture of blame and intolerance.

The more that the narrative around ‘older people’ is a portrayal of the negative (houseblockers, bedblockers, failing to save for/ plan for retirement) the greater the risk of simplistic and crude attribution of fault to individuals for complex and difficult social issues. We risk pitting ‘young’ against ‘old’ when the reality is so much more nuanced.

For starters, just as at all other stages of life, there is great diversity of the experience of older age, including significant inequalities – of wealth and income, quality of home and neighbourhood, healthy vs unhealthy life expectancy and so on.

Add to this the reality that the current built environment, and housing in particular, is not well designed for an ageing population. Whereas the Disability Discrimination Act has brought about a revolution in accessible public space (no-one thinks twice now about dropped curbs, level thresholds and automatic doors into and out of shops) this is not the case with regard to the housing stock. The perspective of the disability movement of the 80s and 90s was clear – people are disabled by the world around them and so the built environment should be changed to be more accessible. So why don’t we apply the same ideas to accommodate population ageing?

The reasons why most people ‘fail’ to adapt their own homes in advance of possible physical decline in later life are many and various.

For most of us, there is the hope that loss of physical function may never happen – and indeed for many it doesn’t, with only half of those over 65yrs reporting mobility problems (albeit that this increases significantly after 75yrs and 85yrs).

Even for people who are finding day to day living harder (most commonly, difficulty with stairs/ steps/ getting in and out of the bath) there are emotional and financial barriers to installing adaptations.

In a culture where youth and fitness is all, with ‘stay young forever’ the popular culture backdrop, no-one wants to admit that they are getting old and that infirmity is setting in.

Even when people do want to adapt their homes, many home modifications are expensive and unaffordable to lower income people. Even for those with money, faced with a high level of intensive marketing it can be hard to choose the most appropriate adaptation – it is not easy to find impartial, independent information and advice.

For those who can’t afford to pay (both tenants and home owners) there are considerable barriers-  few people have even heard of Disabled Facilities Grants, let alone have any idea how to get this help.

Hence my annoyance at a headline which says older people are failing to adapt their homes.

A revolution is needed both in the design of all new homes and also in the design and mainstreaming of accessible design features in general housing (think fashionable wet-room vs ‘adapted’ bathroom). The ‘public image’ of home adaptations needs a make over. These have to become less of an outward manifestation of losing mobility [and by implication, control] and be seen as a positive way of creating a good place to live that enables independence. We can but try. [July 2016]

[this Blog has also been published by ILCUK, click here]