Lord Borwick: Over the next fifty years, we must continue to improve the lives of those living with disabilities
Over the last 50 years, there has been an enormous improvement in the public’s attitude to disabled people. If we’ve seen those improvements over the last 50 years, we should now be optimistic that the next 50 years will promise even more, says Lord Borwick.
It’s stating the obvious to say that the lives of disabled people are often challenging. It’s absolutely right that we work incredibly hard to meet those challenges. We don’t get everything right, and there is a lot more work to do, but I called this debate in order to focus on the positives.
Over the last 50 years, there has been an enormous improvement in the public’s attitude to disabled people. Many more people now also better understand the nature of different types of disabilities, and as such we make much better provision for their needs than we did 50 years ago.
If we’ve seen those improvements over the last 50 years, we should now be optimistic that the next 50 years will promise even more. That’s why I set out this future date in the title of my debate - to start a conversation with my colleagues and identify now what potential problems we might face in continuing the improvements.
I’ll be covering a range of issues in the debate, and I’m sure my colleagues will raise many more. But a big one is loneliness. Technology has extraordinary powers to bring people together; but it can also isolate people. In every generation, people have felt that technology has passed them by - iPhones are no different in that regard than new forms of transport, say, at the turn of the 20th century.
Demographic changes will mean that older generations will become much more commercially viable markets, so hopefully tomorrow’s whizzkids will be thinking hard about how to include those with disabilities or those susceptible to isolation and loneliness.
Many scientists believe that if most people engaged in a healthy lifestyle throughout their lives, they could live well over 100 years in relatively good shape with preservation of cognitive ability.
In a book called “Blue Zones”, Dan Buettner studies communities around the world where people frequently live past 100. They stay physically active, eat well, and usually never smoke.
Crucially, they also enjoy loving, purposeful relationships throughout their lifespan.
So someone can be physically well but lonely - and loneliness clearly increases loss of cognitive function and accelerates costly preventable demise.
Developed economies are managing to mostly keep people well, but in the near future we may be facing a tsunami of elderly people with dementia and other such illnesses brought about by loneliness.
The government has recognised this and now has a minister for loneliness. This is welcome, and long-term goals within the government strategy to educate more children on its devastating impacts is surely the right thing to do.
And while I talked about how technology can isolate people, it's clear that it can and is being harnessed to reduce loneliness. Think of autonomous cars, of robot carers doing tasks that leave time and space for personal relationships.
And government cannot, and should not, replace a family. There are thousands of family carers across the country, many of whom are also balancing jobs and young families at the same time. This is a tremendous resource not just for the lonely person, but for the country.
And we should be immensely proud of these people. They are national heroes, and may be the secret to making the next 50 years even better than the last.
Lord Borwick is a Conservative member of the House of Lords.