The last ‘acceptable’ prejudice - how do we address institutional ageism in the UK?

By Vanessa Pritchard-Wilkes, Head of Strategic Engagement at Housing 21

Is society ageist at its core?

When coining the term ‘ageism’ in 1969, physician and author Robert Butler described one of its aspects as ‘institutional practices and policies that perpetuate stereotypes about older adults, that reduce their opportunity for life satisfaction and undermine their personal dignity.’ The average life expectancy in the UK is now 79 for men and 83 for women, and by 2066 people over the age of 65 will make up 26% of the total population. This section of society is growing exponentially and is a rich untapped source, providing skills and experience that can benefit the workforce, as well as helping to address future skills shortages. Yet, 50 years after Robert Butler coined the term ageism, outdated prejudices about old people remain, leaving us with policies, perceptions and prejudices that are ageist at their core, to the detriment to huge sections of society.

As a housing and care provider, our job is to enable people to continue to live fulfilling lives for as long as possible, and to provide properties which facilitate this. However, the ageist assumptions around older people that continue to persist in our society, exacerbated by the inherent bias in policy, the media and popular culture, doesn’t reflect the reality of the majority of people over the age of 65 in society.

This attitude can be hugely damaging to people’s physical and mental health as they age. In fact, a study in 2017 found that those with positive self-perceptions of their own ageing process live an average of 7.5 years longer than those with more negative perceptions, with a second study finding a higher risk of depression and anxiety among those with negative ageing perceptions. It’s clear therefore that ageism needs to be addressed for both individual and societal benefits.

The repercussions of an ageist society

Societal ageism is a huge problem to tackle, but recent reviews such as That Age Old Question and A New Vision For Older Workers are helping in bringing this issue to the forefront and shining a light on the steps that need to be taken to enable people over the age of 65 to work and live better for longer. However, there is still more to be done, especially when it comes to housing policy. 

There is still a commonly held view that ‘babyboomers’ are still a significant part of the housing crisis, with the belief that all people over 65 years of age are homeowners sitting on vast amounts of property wealth. Because of this myth, and because the percentage of older people in the private rented sector is currently small (5.6%), this means that their needs are often overlooked. Affordability is a big issue, with the HAPPI 5 report identifying that half of older households in the private rented sector will no longer be able to afford their rent when they retire, leading to a potential homelessness ticking time bomb.

The HAPPI 5 report also concluded that there will be a significant demand for more affordable rented homes for older people over the next 30 years, with at least 38,000 homes a year needed, 12,000 of which should be Extra Care homes.
There are also a number of other issues which need to be discussed such as whether BAME, LGBT specific housing is required and whether age segregated housing is really the right approach as the over 65 population continues to grow.

Curing an institutionally ageist society

Tackling institutional ageism is not easy, and requires a multi-disciplinary and collaborative approach, if we are going to come anywhere near addressing the changing needs of an ageing population.  That’s why at Housing 21’s annual conference in October, we are addressing the issue head on, bringing together academics and practitioners to discuss housing and inequalities and what policy changes and actions are needed to tackle institutional ageism in the UK. From recognising how existing inequalities can be exacerbated in older age, to analysing what consequences the lack of a holistic housing policy has for older populations, our conference will bring together representatives from across the housing sector, academia and policy to tackle one of the biggest issues facing the housing and care sector at this time. 

We are all ageing, yet ageism is still considered an acceptable prejudice. It’s time that we worked together across disciplines to address the negative effect ageism has on all sectors of society, and help us all to age positively and live longer and happier lives.

Housing 21’s annual conference – Is the UK institutionally ageist? – is taking place on Wednesday 9th October 2019 at the International Convention Centre in Birmingham, and welcomes delegates from across all sectors, academia and policy. Follow this link to register for tickets

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