London’s Covid recovery planning is now underway. The great and the good have been virtually assembling and with this, for all the uncertainty and coping with immediate challenges, comes the chance to create a better London. One of the biggest tests is how well the city caters for its growing number of older people.
The coronavirus has had a dramatic effect on this group: not only a terrible death toll, but also acute challenges for health and wellbeing. The pandemic has cruelly exacerbated the structural inequalities facing older people. Across London, a long list of problems includes loneliness, poor housing, mental and physical health, delayed medical treatments, the digital divide, difficulties in accessing services, problems with shopping, risks to employment, and above all, the loss of independent living. Some of these have been made worse by the pandemic, and an emerging agenda for older people must start by addressing such immediate concerns.
Older people have been compliant with lockdown rules and are still officially defined as being at “medical risk”, so understandably many are extremely cautious about a reopening London. What might the recovery hold? A key issue must be building the confidence of older people with good information about what’s happening locally on the re-opening of London and advice about how to socially distance whilst keeping up connections and using what may be new public spaces. Community-based support mechanisms, such a positive outcome from the crisis, need to be maintained.
Then there is the future design of London as a city to consider, so that high streets and amenities are more helpful to older people. We’ve heard that London and other cities might become younger as a result of the pandemic but what about the value and contribution of older people and the inter-generational benefits they bring? And finally, but not least the big one – sorting out social care as a number one priority.
How older Londoners are viewed by policy makers shaping recovery will be crucial. An unfortunate feature of the coronavirus crisis has been the rise of age discrimination, notably media stereotypes of older people as “being a costly burden”. The ending of the initial lockdown of all over-70s was only achieved because of intense lobbying by many who felt this was a crude and rather ageist measure. Older people need to be vigilant that they aren’t side-lined. For example, Transport for London, at the behest of the government, suspended free over-60s public transport travel at morning peak times. Did this decision reflect a view that over-60s have less need to travel than other age groups?
There is a risk that such unhelpful narratives may persist. Positive Ageing in London, a body representing age organisations across London whose executive I am a member of, has sent a set of key principles to Sadiq Khan and London Councils chair Peter John, who jointly chair the London Recovery Board. A fundamental one is that older people are not all the same. Not every over-70s is vulnerable and older Londoners as a whole are a truly diverse group with different needs and interests, pursuing different activities. We argue that recovery plans need to be based on evidence, not assumptions. Research is necessary in tandem with engagement with older people to hear their views and interpret findings.
In short, we need a new policy playbook, with older people contributing to London’s recovery through high quality conversations with policy makers from the start. Recovery needs to be done with and not to older people. It also needs to help ensure that London becomes an Age Friendly City, following the World Health Organisation framework. London has been working towards this, but its progress lags behind Manchester and others. With the world having changed so much, the approach to this needs to be completely overhauled. But aspiring to it can be the spur to a better life for London’s 2.5 million over-50s.
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