The baroness lead­ing a grey-power re­bel­lion

Ju­li­aNeu­berger is fed up with the way so­ci­ety marginalises older peo­ple. It’s time they fought back, she tells Alex Kas­riel

The Jewish Chronicle - - FEATURES -

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 tradesunion 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-yearold 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.”

PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

The Zim­mers — a rock band made up of pen­sion­ers — is an ex­am­ple cited by Ju­lia Neu­berger of older peo­ple find­ing ful­fil­ment by de­fy­ing so­ci­ety’s ex­pec­ta­tion of how they should be­have

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