Great news: We’re all living longer. So let’s talk about it…

Here at Involve we are starting to turn our attention to the issue of our ageing society as a subject for public engagement. Last month I took part in an open space event on the implications of our ever-lengthening lives (Extending life at both Ends, a Health Challenge Event hosted by Edinburgh Napier University). This event brought home to me the urgency for more public engagement around the tricky policy issues relating to an ageing society.

As most of us are aware, the UK and western world is getting proportionally older. Health, care and welfare services will be a necessity for more of us and for a longer time period.  The increased cost associated with ageing coupled with a reduced ratio of younger to older members of the population means that governments have to navigate a thorny path of difficult trade-offs and compromises. It is vital that citizens are engaged with from the outset in to ensure there is general awareness of the issues and consensus for the decisions. In order for us to make a meaningful contribution and fully understand the implications of our extended lives we need to be engaged in the debate today, we should really have been engaged yesterday.

At this open space event I initiated two sessions around the role of public engagement in dealing with these issues. Delegates in my groups came from a wide variety of perspectives, from government, third sector, interested members of the public and academics.  A key theme to come out of the conversations was the need for the public conversation to almost start at “square one”. They stressed the necessity to engage with people from the outset in a discussion around our changing ideals. They also spoke about the need for building consensus about the standard of care we should expect for the price the state is willing/able to pay, and need for dialogue about what individual and collective responsibilities should look like.

The people I spoke to felt that before spending and policy decisions are made we all need to be involved in a discussion about our modern day values, the value we place on state care as opposed to care in the home, the value we place on our working lives and our retirement, and the value of having friends, neighbours and community links that can support us when the state cannot. Delegates also discussed the need to talk about responsibility, in terms of ageing, what should be the responsibility of the state, our families, our surrounding community, or indeed what planning for our older age should be made by our younger selves?

Delegates also told me that a whole conversation needs to be had about our perception and value of ageing itself. Such discussions should aim to result in an improved consciousness about ageing as part of the life cycle, and to move away from seeing older people as dependents. We need policy makers, citizens and interest groups to come together to discuss our changing notions of “old”.

Involve are working on facilitating conversations around these issues and attempting to engage citizens in the negotiation of complex policy decisions relating to the ageing society. For example, we worked with the states of Jersey, whose population is older than that of the mainland. In Jersey we ran participatory workshops, an online survey and a written consultation on how we might tackle issues associated with an ageing population. These activities supported a discussion around compromises and encouraged participants to consider the options as part of the wider whole and recognise the tradeoffs involved. Having communicated the challenges and opportunities to a large proportion of the population, the engagement resulted in a changed political climate from which the States of Jersey could begin to make policy decisions. It gave the government a much clearer understanding of which options the public would support, which they would accept, and which they would oppose.

Emily Fennell