Simon Heng: Support and benefit systems discriminate against older people who become disabled

After struggling for years to achieve my independence as a disabled person, I allowed myself to think about the future. With luck, and the right sort of care, I might even survive until my sixties. Then I discovered that people older than 65 who develop my sort of condition – paralysis caused by damage to the nervous system – are not eligible for the same kind of support, rehabilitation, care, social housing or benefits.

I was worried that, if I did survive that long, my hard-earned independence would be lost on my 65th birthday. It was a relief to find that, as I had become disabled before pensionable age, my arrangements would continue – as things stand at the moment.

Then, with some prompting from older service user colleagues, I was struck by the unfairness of the system: have a stroke when you’re 64, and you’re entitled to the full range of services to help you gain some independence. Have the same stroke on your 65th birthday, and the range of help available – once you’ve left hospital – is much more limited.

When the welfare state was set up after the second world war, life expectancy for men and women were 63 and 68 years respectively. People had been expected to die soon after they had reached pensionable age: it didn’t make much sense to put resources into helping older people, disabled by illness, become more independent.

By the 1990s, life expectancy had risen to 74 for men and 79 for women. There hasn’t been an equivalent improvement in healthy life expectancy – that is, free from long-standing illness. So people are living longer, but are also more likely to develop long-term conditions.

As those who work in older people’s services know, the rules haven’t changed much since the 1940s. I know that there are many projects dedicated to the reablement of older people, but why am I entitled to a “better” service than a 65-year-old?

In the current move from a welfare to a rights agenda, people with disabilities should be judged on need, not age.

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