Julia Neuberger is fed up with the way society marginalises older people. It’s time they fought back, she tells Alex Kasriel
Julia Neuberger has a thing about loos. She wishes there were more public ones. Why? Because she feels that without them, old people are too scared to go out.
“If we were serious about rights for old people, public loos wouldn’t be shut all over the place and they would be staffed,” argues the 58-year-old rabbi and member of the House of Lords, who advises the government on volunteering policy. “Old people just have to go and they don’t want to go in McDonald’s. But because there is an element of bathos about even mentioning it, nothing is done.”
While she does not count herself as one of them just yet, the life peer has made old people her priority. In her new manifesto for old age, Not Dead Yet, she sets out a 10-point plan suggesting how society should prevent senior citizens from feeling marginalised and encourage them to be a more active part of the community.
The book is light and easy to read, but spells out an important message. Neuberger complains about internet banking and its related struggles, she is furious about the law on early retirement, and thinks it is unacceptable that there is little or no funding for continuing education. She wonders why old people are not better represented in areas of public life such as local councils, and is angry about the way in which old people are patronised by the media.
“Newspapers write about older people who do these so-called amazing things like sky-diving,” she says. “I feel like saying: ‘Why shouldn’t they go skydiving if they are able to?’”
She also thinks old people are vilified because they are a burgeoning group of society. “They’re being perceived as a burden. People are resentful of that. But why does the media focus on youth culture? If they wanted a bigger audience, they would go for an older one,” she says.
Not Dead Yet, which goes on sale this week, has already had wide coverage in the media, with extracts printed in a national newspaper and interviews on radio and in the press. Neuberger puts this down to good timing — the publication of her book has coincided with news stories about the lack of decent care homes for elderly people.
“I’m not a writer, I’m a campaigner,” she explains about her decision to put pen to paper. “I got angrier and angrier about how we treat old people in our society. My mother [Liesel Schwab], who was very well cared for and well supported, didn’t feel her life meant anything when she got older. She couldn’t be who she was.”
While the book asks local and central government, the media, and the public to shift their prejudices, Neuberger is also calling on old people themselves to fight their own battle.
“I think older people themselves in this country have not been angry enough,” she says. “They are the generation who went through the war and the welfare state and everything’s done for them. I do think the government has really got some of this wrong, but I’m really saying to older people that they have to be more formidable. They have to be out there being angry.”
Neuberger points to the late trades-union leader Jack Jones as a good example of an older person who fought for grey rights when he served as the President of the National Pensioners Convention.
She argues that the retirement age should be based not on age, but on an individual’s capabilities. “There’s been wonderful staff at the House of Lords for example who have had to go at 65 who didn’t want to,” she says. “But the members can carry on for life. I think we should have to retire eventually at the House of Lords. There should be someone saying: ‘Actually, you’re not up to it any more.’ The test should be, are you good at this, not how old you are.”
But once you do retire, you should be thinking about how you are going to pass 30 years or so fruitfully. “What’s the point of cruising round the world for 30 years?” Neuberger asks. “We can’t force people to do things, but we can say to them: ‘What are you going to do next?’ Whether it’s looking after your grandchildren, volunteering or studying — you could change the culture towards that. The question is, can you get the framework to make it easy for old people to volunteer at 70? Also, lots of people want to carry on studying. But the bulk of funding is given to younger people.”
One person who has injected a lust for life into the older generation is Tim Samuels, the 32-year-old BBC documentary filmmaker who formed pensioner rock group The Zimmers last year and helped them achieve a hit record with their song My Generation.
“He is a hero because he’s the first person I have been aware of, of his generation, who’s completely unpatronising about old people,” she says. “We need Tim to lead a media re-brand.”
Neuberger can count on one hand other media vehicles in which old people are portrayed with dignity and energy. One is the advertising campaign for Dove skincare products, which featured the 97-year-old model Irene Sinclair.
She believes old people should not be lumped into one box labelled “pensioners”. “It’s ludicrous to talk about a whole generation of people being aged from 60 to 100,” she argues. And being near that age herself but someone who has no intention of retiring any time soon, it seems obvious that she should not be classed in the same category as a dependent.
“I would have thought I’m going to be working for the next 10 years or so,” she says. “At the moment I’m at the House of Lords so I should be working until I’m 93. I don’t think people should be written off.”
Neuberger hopes to see a shift in society, one in which old people are thought of as dynamic and self-sufficient.
“I will feel I have achieved something if I see the beginnings of a real grey-power movement in this country,” she says. “If I see groups of older people out there, arguing their corner, I will have succeeded.”
Not Dead Yet is published by Harper Collins at £18.99
Julia Neuberger puts forward 10 demands old people should make on society:
1. Do not make assumptions about my age: end age discrimination
2. Do not waste my skills and experience: the right to work
3. Do not take my pride away: end begging for entitlements
4. Do not trap me at home because there are no public loos or seats: reclaim the streets
5. Do not make me braindead, let me grow: open access to learning
6. Do not force me into a care home: real choice in housing
7. Do not treat those who look after me like rubbish: train and reward care assistants properly
8. Do not treat me like I am not worth repairing: increase the number of community beds in hospitals
9. Do not treat my death as meaningless: the right to die well
10. Do not assume I’m not enjoying life: grey rage