Are the Elderly a Statistic or a Drain on Society?

Remembrance Day

Are the Elderly a Statistic or a Drain on Society?

Remembrance Day, originally set to remember the Great War dead, is a reminder of all those who lost their lives in battle. What about the men and women that survived? Some have carried the physical, emotional and psychological scars of war whilst trying to integrate back into family life and society.  

The veterans of WW2 have lived through the end of the industrial era and the economic and social upheaval it brought. They have witnessed the dawn of the electronic information and the shrinking planet. They were in their mid-thirties when the Beatles became a music phenomenon and in their mid-forties when the first man landed on the moon. They are now part of the 1.4 million people in the UK who are over 85 years old. 

Do we see them as a statistic and a drain on society?  

The elderly are generally seen and treated as helpless, mentally incontinent, unable to grasp new concepts and incapable of taking care of themselves.  We treat them as passive recipients of institutional rules and social structures. We place them in nursing homes or hospitals where they are fed, bathed and dressed according to a timetable that fits in with the running of the institution.  We take away their ‘free will’ – their ability to exert choice over what happens to them in their daily life. We strip them of their power, make them helpless and helplessness leads to depression and stupor.    

In his book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’, Victor Frankl talks about the power of having a purpose in life and how it gives you inner strength and meaning. 

The effects of personal control amongst old people in a nursing home were explored in a study carried out in 1976 by E Langer and J Rodin in Connecticut. They selected two groups of residents from separate floors at a nursing home and called a meeting for each. One group were given information about how members of staff were there to help them and take care of them. The other group were reminded of their responsibility for personal welfare and encouraged to make choices about their daily activities.  

The results of the 1976 study showed the group that were encouraged to exert control had an increase in general health, were more alert and socially engaging. A powerful outcome and all it took were simple semantics – the use of language patterns that empowered the elderly residents to take ownership of their actions and responsibility for their wellbeing.  

Forty-three years on from this study what are we doing with our old generation? How are we looking after the men and women who were once part of the preservation of our free society?  

Recent reports suggest widespread abuse, humiliation and neglect amongst the elderly in hospitals and nursing homes. Incidences of elder abuse appear to rise in line with advancing age, increased levels of dependency and those with dementia. Many elderly people feel ashamed or afraid to speak up or report those abusing them for fear of the consequences or of not being believed.    

Research on elder abuse has advanced significantly over the past 25 years.  Bridget Penhale is a senior lecturer at the University of Sheffield on gerontology and a leading expert in the study of elder abuse and adult social care. She suggests there’s an urgent need for policies to deal with abuse amongst the elderly, with greater focus on measures for prevention – education, training, evidence-based practice and support.

Elder abuse is not just a recent UK problem. It is a worldwide phenomenon that formed part of the agenda at the United Nation’s Second World Assembly in Madrid, Spain in 2002 ( The International Plan of Action on Ageing at the World Assembly outlined actions to eradicate abuse, neglect and violence amongst the elderly. The Plan also suggested a framework for dealing with the expected boom of senior citizens within the next 50 years. A UN report was produced in 2006 offering “Guidelines for review and appraisal of the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing – Bottom-up participatory approach”. 

What have we done since this UN report? Will it be enough to prevent abuse and neglect amongst our senior members of our society?  

We place more worth on antiques that we perceive to be valuable, desirable and beautiful because of their age, unique features and their potential wealth.  Antiques are material possessions and a reminder of past eras of human society. What about the people that once fought a war and are now old? Those that worked in industries that laid the foundations for today’s technology and society? 

How do we show the elderly our respect or celebrate their lives?  

It’s a long road to old age – our life experiences and the journey we take from birth to death is a contribution to our social and cultural history. Next time you look at an old man or woman, think of their voyage through the decades and the wisdom they hold. Remember that every wrinkle in their face and twinkle in their eyes has a story to tell, a history.   

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