Who Is A Pensioner and How Should We Treat Them?


 License: CC 3.0 Attribution/BYCG

 This year there have been several incidents among my family and friends which, taken together, have caused me to be more observant and more thoughtful about how the elderly are treated, the attitudes towards them and the perceptions of what they are able to do and what is appropriate ‘at their age.’

In the last twenty or so years there has been a big general shift in the way the elderly are treated – mostly because of the need to adjust as a country to deal with the increasing numbers of elderly people.  The move towards keeping the elderly in their own homes for as long as possible is much better for them, but there is also less social stigma attached to families placing an elderly relation in a care home – or indeed the elderly themselves declining to go into a home to be looked after, if they prefer (and can afford to pay). However, the system is still developing and does not move smoothly in all areas at all times – as the many scandals still being uncovered, testify.


Although most of the situations I have witnessed are on the charitable side towards the elderly, there have also been occasions where people have been unhelpful or appeared vaguely frightened about contact with an elderly person. There have also been some misconceptions:

Wheeled walking aid = likely dementia sufferer.

The evidence of a ‘wheely walker,’ as we call them in our family, means simply that the person has some balance problems, and the walker is to stop them falling over when out and about. They are usually perfectly sound of mind, especially if out on their own, and these walkers may be needed at any age – not just pensioners. Sufferers of certain illnesses and conditions such as MS may need a walking stick or wheely walker to help with balance, and MS is usually discovered when the person is only in their thirties. There may also be cases where someone needs temporary help while recovering from surgery and ‘finding their feet’ again.So we shouldn’t make snap judgements

People in their eighties should be content to stay at home at night.

An elderly lady I know, after a significant time in hospital followed by a spell of recuperation in a care home returned home to pick up her life. As she lives alone, carers were assigned to go and help twice a day. However, she was greeted with some astonishment when she asked to cancel the evening carer once a fortnight so she could go out and meet a group of friends in a nearby town. The assumption was that at her age she shouldn’t want to go out at night. But why not?

She books a taxi to transport her from door to door and because she has used the same company for several years, she and the driver tend to ‘set the world to rights’ in discussion as they travel. The small group she meets is fairly mixed in age range and their discussions exercise her mind. Sometimes she is also given something to think about at home afterwards. The staff at the venue also know her and chat to her. All in all she finds a lot of mental stimulation from attending, which keeps her topped up until the next time. In the winter, this is often the only time she leaves the house and so she really looks forward to it.

Grey hair = bus pass user.

This one is common among bus drivers, and to be fair, perhaps they are only playing safe. Perhaps it is also many people these days choose to dye their hair to cover up the grey, but it’s not everyone that can afford to do so in these difficult times, and some prefer to age naturally by letting the grey appear as it will. There is no defined age when hair turns grey, it can actually happen at any time of life, and so it could be taken as an insult to be taken for a pensioner when you are nowhere near pension age. As the retirement age is pushed back, for everyone to work longer, this is likely to happen more and more. Increasing numbers of ‘working age’ people will have grey hair long before they can claim their pensions.

Care and Institutionalisation

We are all familiar with the old image of care homes. Elderly people sitting in a circle of easy chairs nodding off in boredom. Fortunately, most care homes are no longer like that, and some go to great lengths to provide mental stimulation and varied activities for those well enough to take advantage of them. Unfortunately, there are still some homes where the elderly are left sitting alone in their room all day, with nothing to do, which is even worse than sitting together in a communal room with nothing to do.

There is also a problem of lack of mental stimulation in hospitals, among the elderly. Now we all know that the NHS is always short of money and the staff are overstretched, but mental health and physical health are not totally detached from each other. If an elderly person is left sitting in a chair, staring into space, hour after hour, day after day, even the most strong-willed person could lose the drive and will-power necessary to fight their illness.

A younger person would be far less likely to be treated like this, so why do we expect it of the elderly? Just because they look frail doesn’t mean their minds cannot be still sharp and very active. This is how patients become institutionalised. It may make them easier for staff to handle, but it’s not good for their well-being, or their recovery.

When an elderly person goes home after a prolonged stay in hospital carers are often sent to help for at least a few weeks to make sure they can cope. The job of the short-term care team is to help and encourage the person to do things for themselves and make the necessary adjustments to take back control of their lives. If it is then felt that the person still needs help on a daily basis, a long-term care team is assigned to go in and do whatever is necessary, for an allotted time, for up to four times a day, although most only need help twice a day. If the difficulty is borderline, the elderly person can begin to feel they have to wait for the carer and give up trying to do things for themselves.

Finding a Balance

The carers I have met have been pleasant and generally efficient at their work, but some of the elderly are very independent and not ready to admit they need help, they can feel resentment at the ‘intrusion’ into their homes and their lives. Finding the balance between helping a person remain independent for as long as possible and taking their independence away can be a very fine line.

As a society, we need to think hard about who we judge to be ‘old’ and not write people off too early. Grey hair doesn’t mean a person is incapable of working efficiently. But we also need to continue developing the care system for the genuinely elderly with their needs at the centre – and be prepared to listen to their comments and complaints. Don’t brush them aside just because they are old and infirm, be prepared to help them continue to do as much as they can for as long as they can. After all, it’s their life and we will be in their situation one day. Think carefully about how you would want to be treated at their age.

What do you think?

Who Dares Wake the Sleeping Grey Monster?


Pensioners deserve dignity in old age – even the ones with no occupational pension. The elderly paid into the National Insurance scheme all their working lives – or had good reason for being out of work.

For men, good reason was often illness or redundancy. When industries were closed down and large numbers were suddenly out of work, their workless state was not of their own making. They should not be punished in old age.

For women, working lives were very different in the past. Today’s female pensioners were usually expected to give up work when they had a family and concentrate all their efforts on looking after their husband and children, while their husband brought in the money to keep them all. If they worked at all after marriage, it was likely to be a little part-time job that paid a pittance. In those days the gap between the pay of men and women was wide, because the men were seen as the breadwinners and the women were supposedly only working for ‘pin money.’


When the traditional industries of the north were deliberately closed down by the government policies of the 1980s, whole communities of men, sometimes several generations of the same families, were thrown on the scrap-heap. More concerned by the threat to their own reputations than the ruined lives they had caused, the government then encouraged the older and less able workers to be moved onto incapacity benefit, so that they would not be counted as unemployed. They were then left to rot.

Now the current government want people off incapacity benefit and back into work so that they can benefit from the extra taxes, but employers don’t want older workers – especially if they are long-term unemployed.

These were the men who fought hard for their jobs, through the unions. But Margaret Thatcher was determined to over-rule them and destroy their unions, their industries and in doing so, she also broke their families, their communities, their ability to earn a living and often their health.

It was a Conservative government that threw them on the scrap heap, now another, largely Conservative government suddenly wants them working again to boost the economy. Unfortunately, real life doesn’t work quite like that.



The women who are crossing the new pension age around now – and many of those who will reach it in the next few years are the very women who fought for equal employment rights and equal pay for women in the 1970s and 1980s. They had to fight for the right to earn a living in a society that still saw women as second-class citizens, not capable of doing the same work as men – despite the fact that their mothers and grandmothers proved their capability during two world wars, while the men were away fighting for king and country.

There is a tendency, nowadays, for people to believe that women have always had all the opportunities and full time work they have now – and especially the child-care provisions. Those who think this way often look down on older women who have not led similar lives, as though they were too lazy to shift themselves to find work/ child-care in their younger days. They didn’t try hard enough/ took the easy way out, and so it’s their own fault they have no money in their older years.

This view is ignorant of the facts and short-sighted. The women they are looking down on could be the very women who helped to win the right to access to better work, and forced the employers and politicians to reconsider the problems of childcare, to enable more women to work.

In the 1970s, and for much of the 1980s, child-care places were like gold – especially in more rural areas of the country, and even if a place could be found, the wages paid to a woman may not have covered the cost. There were no government vouchers then. These women often had no choice but to stay at home unless they had family members who could take care of the children. Even when the children were at school, there was still the problem of before and after school hours – and a major barrier to work was school holidays. Jobs were not tailored to school hours, as many have become since, and there was no flexibility. If you wanted to work, you worked the hours set by the employer. There were also no breakfast clubs and after school activities were mainly sports practises.

Even when the change began in the 1980s, it happened much more slowly in many parts of the country – too late for many of the women who had fought for it.

Women now in their late fifties/early sixties have also been particularly badly hit by all they recent changes regarding retirement. They had planned their lives around the old female retirement age of 60. When this was suddenly pushed to 65, it was accepted in the spirit of equality, but brought problems for many because of the attitudes of employers towards older workers. Anyone, male or female who finds themselves without work when they are over 50 can find it almost impossible to find another job. Some people who may have benefited when the number of work-years needed for a state pension was cut to a standard 30 some years ago and felt that they at least had that covered.

Then came the blows. The retirement age for many was pushed back again – more years to struggle for work but no work to be had. Then the number of work-years needed was changed again – and the right to a portion of a husband’s/ex-husband’s pension was removed. Suddenly a woman in her late fifties/ early sixties finds herself being expected to work until 66, 67, 68, etc.

Take the example of Janet, who was divorced in the 1980s, with a young family that forced her to live on benefits until they grew old enough to be left alone. When she was ready to return to full-time work, the jobs had suddenly become tailored to school hours and full-time work was impossible to find. Part-time work left her worse off and increasingly she found employers  refused to take her on for part-time work if she already had one part-time job, so she couldn’t make up the hours that way either. She tried self-employment, but couldn’t make enough to live on because she didn’t have enough money to put into the business. She tried gaining qualifications, but found they only gave employers another excuse to reject her.

At one point Janet was told she would be entitled to a full pension – under the 30 work-year ruling with a combination of home-responsibilities protection (hrp), her own contributions and with several years of entitlement to part of her ex-husband’s pension. But now she doesn’t know where she stands, with just the hrp and her own piece-meal contributions. Because most of her work was part-time, she often didn’t earn enough to pay national insurance and during her self-employment phase, she was exempt from payments on account of her low income. She doesn’t think she has enough contributions to cover her for the 35 work-years she now needs.  Although in theory she still has time to make this up, in practice, she feels there is little chance, because she is constantly turned down for work for being over-qualified and there are even less full-time jobs available now.

Middle-Age Problems for Both Genders

There are also other problems that people of either gender can come up against in middle age:

–        having to give up work to care for elderly parents – or even a partner

–        health problems – perhaps from living in poverty

–        the benefit trap for those living alone (whether single, divorced, widowed) that makes part-time work unviable – especially if there are travel costs involved.


The Baby-Boomer Generation

The baby-boomer generation, born after the Second World War, is a phenomenon recognised in many countries, through Europe and the USA. In Britain, it began a decade later due to the continuance of rationing and really dates from about 1955 (exactly the birth-year of the first women expected to work until the age of 65) and lasted until the mid 1960s.

This has always been known. So why does the government act as though it’s something they have just discovered?

In actual fact, Britain was on course to weather the pensions time-bomb much better than the rest of Europe, because there was a reserve of money that had been built up from contributions to cover at least most of it. That was until Gordon Brown decided that there was too much money lying there and raided it to pay for other things. That is where this problem started.

It suits the government and the media to give the impression that all the baby-boomer generation are living the life of riley with houses, cars and occupational pensions, etc. SOME of these undoubtedly are in this position, but certainly not all of them. Those whose lives were blighted by the eradication of industry, and those who were forced to stay at home through lack of childcare, and jobs that didn’t (and don’t) pay enough to live on, are wondering where all this money is that they are supposed to have.

Although some will have resigned themselves to their fate over the years, for many, the anger, even bitterness, at the unfairness of society and the lack of help they experienced in trying to rebuild their own lives, still burns not far from the surface. This is the fighting generation, the generation who have fought for change all their lives, and by sheer numbers have achieved many changes – often too late for their own benefit, but they have opened doors for those who follow.

If this government or any future government, think they can easily take away the rights and privileges of old age that this generation has worked so hard for (and many worked for a pittance before minimum wage), they could be in for a big shock. The monster may be grey now, but it is only sleeping and it could yet rise up for one last battle – the grey-power battle.