Going for gold for the old?
At the risk of being repetitive, I keep coming back to the Olympic Games as a vivid example of clumsiness. To repeat (again) the idea of clumsy solutions (developed by adherents of ‘Cultural Theory’) lies in the attempt to combine the three basic forms of seeing and exercising power: hierarchy, solidarity and individualism (there is a fourth – fatalism – but it’s not so relevant to this specific argument).
The success of the Games lay in strong and effective hierarchical leadership, the powerful solidarity of national pride and the Olympic spirit, and, of course, the enthralling efforts of individuals competing to be the world’s best. Rarely, if ever, are the ingredients so richly available as they were for London 2012, nevertheless to see a nation prone to scepticism and pessimism amazing itself, and impressing the world, with its capacity for engagement, mobilisation and collective joy is to get a glimpse of the kind of step change this alignment of forces can enable.
As I said earlier in the week, as a motivating force the Olympics started with all sorts of unique advantages, but rather than making the best the enemy of the good, we should seek to learn its lessons. Take the issue of care for older people, which I am glad to see the Government is promising now to address in next year’s spending review, is there anything to carry over to such a tough issue from the exuberance of the Games?
The first might be to set an inspiring goal. Instead of presenting elder care as a depressing problem that we can only hope slightly to mitigate, how about a celebration of the virtues of long life and a population of all ages, linked to the vision of England as the best place to grow old in the world?
Second, we could learn from how Games organisers derived power from the simple imperative of having to deliver the Games on time and according to the promises made when winning the bid seven years ago (we may have quibbled about Olympic transport lanes and officiousness over logos but in the end we knew there was no alternative). So, the Government might consult on an absolute commitment to deliver a particular outcome by a particular time (say reducing by half the proportion of people over 80 who are consigned to institutional care). Having won support for the goal ministers would then have a mandate to make tough decisions and stick to them.
Third, there needs to be valued role for us all. In the Olympics there was the splendid volunteer force, but also every fan with a ticket felt privileged and expected to shout their heads off, and even the rest of us knew we had to enter into the spirit of it (even my mum who HATES sport got quite excited). So an Olympic approach to making England great for frail older people would be one in which we could all feel we were playing a useful role; social care professionals, carers, volunteers and all of us committing to being more positive about old people and old age.
Finally, can there be anything in normal life even remotely as inspiring as the individual pursuit of medals? Perhaps not, but as well as the right financial incentives to insure care needs, a individualistic component to a plan might involve a message crafted and promulgated by older people combining a demand for dignity and respect along with a focus on what all of us can do to put off the time when we need care, or to be better prepared for having those needs or meeting them in loved ones. A loose analogy might be with the way the gay community responded to AIDS through a message of pride and self help. Such a narrative might inspire the independently-minded baby boomers now entering retirement.
There are, of course, lots of riders to attach to the ambition of an Olympian plan for population ageing. It is a challenge that will last a generation not just two weeks (no government can credibly have more than small handful of such transformational goals at any one time). My high level long-term strategy still leaves a myriad of tough policy issues (including the crisis of care facing us right now). But the point remains: whatever the scale of the issue, to make a big difference in a challenging context we need to align bold leadership, strong solidarity and individual aspiration. Maybe if we did so we could be the envy of the world for something a little longer lasting than the Games.