Death and old age in this country has customarily been a topic awkwardly discussed in vague abstractions. Although this taboo of talking about death and old age appears to be beginning to ebb away, people are still not making enough plans to secure their and their families’ future.
For the past nine years Sun Life Direct has been researching UK consumers and funeral directors to build a comprehensive picture of the attitudes and realities around how we talk about, pay for, plan and organise the process of ageing and dying. Our conclusion in 2011? The UK is sleepwalking into a financial nightmare and it is critical we act decisively before it’s too late.
The total cost of dying (including death-related costs such as funerals, probate, headstones and flowers) has increased steadily over the years to an average of £7,248 – a dramatic increase of 20% since 2007, and over £400 more than last year – way above inflation. These rising prices, exacerbated by a concurrent income squeeze, means that families are all too often knocked sideways by unexpected bills for the funerals of loved ones. It will not be long before the phrase ’funeral poverty’ becomes a more common topic of conversation.
Believe it or not, more than one in five of us are actively looking forward to ageing. Having time to yourself and being happy in one’s own skin are some of the most appealing features of old age for many people. However, the current situation means that ageing is fraught with worries and concerns. Living costs for older people continue to rise, as do care home bills. Numerous government reviews have highlighted concerns but, so far, done little to prompt concerted action to remedy the worsening situation.
By its very nature our situation deteriorates every day; we are living longer, often requiring increased care due to chronic disease. Therefore this requires ever more resources from families, the state and our own coffers. The situation will stretch the current levels of state resources and social care to breaking point and could lead to a situation where many people are passing on with no way of paying for any of it. Sun Life Direct is committed to researching and reforming thinking in this area and we have found that the state ‘safety net’ to help the poorest in society (The Social Fund Funeral Payment Scheme) appears to be fraying at the edges. Our qualitative research into the process and experience of applying for a funeral grant at death, titled ‘Affording a funeral’, is nearing completion and is set to be released during May around Dying Matters Awareness Week.
Blurred ideas around responsibility are constant roadblocks to successful reform. The relationship between the public, commercial and voluntary sectors in the resourcing and provision of care, information, advice, support and services in old age and planning for death needs to be addressed.
In order to wake ourselves from this financial nightmare, families and individuals must take responsibility for their own fate. We must reform the confused and contradictory habits prevalent across the country and make speaking about and planning for later life and death the norm and not the taboo.
Simon Cox is Head of Life Planning at Sun Life Direct