Camilla Cavendish debates rising longevity with FT Money readers

The cost of providing adult social care for the UK’s ageing population is the “elephant in the room” ahead of the general election, according to the FT columnist and author Camilla Cavendish.

Addressing an audience of more than 100 FT Money readers at an event in the City of London last week, the former head of the Downing Street policy unit said all political parties urgently need to tackle the issue of funding social care, which is a significant financial challenge for people in later life.

“Social care is the elephant in the room in terms of election manifestos,” Ms Cavendish said. “Labour has pledged free personal care for over-65s . . . which could be phenomenally expensive,” she said, adding that the burden would be shifted from older people to all taxpayers, and that cost estimates of £8bn a year were “probably too low”.

Under Labour’s plans, revealed at its party conference in September, people with dementia would receive the same level of personal care as those with other health conditions — a disparity in the current funding system. Labour said this would reduce the burden on unpaid carers as well as the NHS.

However, Ms Cavendish expressed surprise that the Conservative party had not set out its own policy.

“The Tories are currently deciding what on earth they’re going to do . . . they’re probably going to push it into the long grass, or link it to reducing the ‘triple lock’,” she predicted, referring to the policy of ensuring that the state pension keeps pace with both earnings and inflation.

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Social care is a contentious area for the party; policy proposals at the 2017 general election from former prime minister Theresa May were dubbed a “dementia tax”, rapidly leading to a U-turn.

Audience members quizzed Ms Cavendish and other financial experts on the panel about how to factor the costs of care into their own retirement planning — as well as debating how much was enough to retire on.

Ms Cavendish said there needed to be an increased focus on health, as well as wealth, in order for people to get the most out of later life.

“Japan is the only country in the world that I’m aware of that has managed to increase healthy life expectancy for its whole population,” she said. “The increase in life expectancy has led to the emergence of a new expression in Japan — ‘the young-old’.”

Improving people’s wellbeing as they aged was a crucial part of the retirement funding equation, she said, noting how one in four people in the UK and US were “unretiring” and going back to work.

“Some of them for financial reasons, or because they’ve got debt [but] quite a few of them, because they really miss the camaraderie, they miss the routine.”

In her book, Extra Time: Ten Lessons for an Ageing World, Ms Cavendish said she had explored other factors that could influence wellbeing in retirement, including the plasticity of the brain, which enables people to continue learning into old age, as well as anti-ageing treatments.

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“There is a whole raft of these therapies that are coming down the road that will mimic the genetic circuits in our bodies . . . a lot of them are triggered by calorie restriction,” she said.

Her comments did not prevent FT readers from enjoying the wine and canapés served at the book signing after the event.

Ms Cavendish also discussed the benefits of aerobic exercise in retirement. “One of my favourite studies was in Illinois [where] they took a bunch of septuagenarians who started jogging when it became fashionable in the 70s.”

“Those people — to the amazement of researchers — are now 30 years biologically younger than their chronological age and . . . it’s mainly a result of aerobic exercise.”

Ms Cavendish said a focus on healthy life expectancy would have to become a priority for the UK and policymakers around the world to ensure that “we don’t spend those last 10 years, or the last third [of life] in that terrible decline”.

The panel, chaired by FT Money editor Claer Barrett, also expressed concern that political parties could be tempted to tinker further with pension policy in their election manifestos.

Michael Martin, private client manager at event sponsor Seven Investment Management, said his clients were “understandably nervous” that there could be changes to the annual and lifetime allowances governing what can be saved tax-free into a pension.

Josephine Cumbo, the FT’s pensions correspondent, said the annual allowance taper that restricts what higher earners can save into a pension could become a major issue in the upcoming election.

“It’s this tapered annual allowance that is causing major problems in the NHS,” she said. “What we’re seeing with doctors is that they’re not doing overtime, they’re not doing extra shifts to clear patient backlogs because they’re ending up with six-figure tax bills”.

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