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England Older Population Growing, and In Better Health

The last decade has seen the population of England and Wales growing, ageing, becoming more diverse, and less Christian, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) census results.

The ONS reported results from the 2021 census and the changes that had occurred since the equivalent 2011 survey. In the past 11 years, the number of people aged 65 years and over increased from 9.2 million in 2011 to over 11 million in 2021, representing an increase from 16.4% to 18.6% of the population.

Also, general health for those 65-plus has improved since 2011, with 57.7% reporting being in 'good' or 'very good' health, 29.5% in 'fair' health, and only 12.8% in 'bad' or 'very bad' health. However, the likelihood of being in 'very good' or 'good' health decreased with age between 65-90 years.

In addition, there were fewer people self-reporting as disabled in 2021, and especially marked drops among the oldest age groups, from 87.1% of females and 81.6% of males aged 85 years and over describing themselves as disabled in 2011, compared with 60.5% and 53.7%, respectively, in 2021. However the ONS noted that removal of the census prompt to 'include problems related to old age' may have contributed to the decrease.  

Vast Majority of Older People Live in Private Households

Most (97.3%) people 65 and over were living in private homes in 2021, with just a small – and decreasing – proportion (2.7%) in communal establishments, mainly (93% of this group) in care homes, amounting to a drop of care home residents from 3.2% to 2.5% between 2011 and 2021.

However, 1 in 10 (10.6%) of those aged 65 and over reported being unpaid carers in 2021 – almost 1.2 million people – with almost half of them (47%) stating that they provided more than 50 hours of unpaid care a week. The overall proportion of carers had dropped since 2011, when it was around 1 in 7 (14.4%). The ONS noted, however, that the lockdown may have affected 2021 responses. Older carers who provided 20 or more hours of care a week were more likely to be in 'bad' or 'very bad' health than carers providing fewer hours.

A Third of Over-65s Live Alone

Nearly one-third, 3.3 million over-65s, were living alone in 2021, representing 36.3% of women (down from 39.2% in 2011) and 22.7% of men (up from 21.8% in 2011). The ONS found that older people who were living in a couple were more likely to report themselves as in 'good' or 'very good' health, and less likely to be in 'bad' health than those not living in a couple. This was true even if someone not living in a couple still lived with other people. Over 65s from Asian, Asian British, or Asian Welsh ethnic groups were least likely to be living alone.

The population aged 65 years and over was more ethnically diverse in 2021 than in 2011, with a decrease from 95.5% to 93.6% in the percentage identifying as White and corresponding increases in the proportions identifying as other ethnic groups. The largest increase was in the Asian, Asian British, and Asian Welsh group, up from 2.6% in 2011 to 3.8% in 2021.

Increasing ethnic diversity was also demonstrable in the progressively falling proportion of people identifying as White among younger cohorts of the over-65s, from 95.2% of people aged 85 years and over to 94.4% of people aged 75 to 84 years and 92.7% of people aged 65 to 74 years.

Majority of Older People Still Christian and Married – but Proportions Falling

Other findings from the census comparison included that, although a majority (72%) still identified as 'Christian', this had dropped over 10% in a decade, from 80.4% in 2011. In tandem, the proportion of this age group giving their religious affiliation as 'no religion' had doubled since 2011, from 8.5% to 17.5% in 2021. Men were more likely than women to say they had no religion (21.9% versus 13.8%).

In 2021, 58.3% of the population aged 65 years and over in England and Wales were married or in a civil partnership (which compares with 46.9% of the population aged 16 and over as a whole), of which same-sex marriages and all civil partnerships accounted for less than 0.3% of legal partnerships. Fewer than 1 in 100 of the population (0.62%) aged 65 and over identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or another minority sexual orientation, and only 0.23% identified as trans.

Both men and women aged 65 years and over were more likely to be divorced (12.2%) and less likely to be widowed (23.1%) in 2021 than in 2011 - "in line with increases in life expectancy", the ONS commented, with 6.3% single. Men were more likely to be married or single than women, whereas women were more likely to be divorced or widowed.

The ONS noted that the census 2021 was conducted on 21 March that year during coronavirus lockdown restrictions, and this may have changed people's perceptions and affected estimates of disability prevalence and general health.