There is always a temptation to suppose that one's own problems (whether personal or national) are unique. They rarely are. The “problem” of the elderly is no exception and so there is no particular point in looking to the specific characteristics of one's own health, social service, and social security systems for causes. There is, however, every reason to be looking at them for the consequences. They can also exacerbate the causes. In this paper we sketch the principal features (economic, social, and demographic) that have contributed to the “problem” of the elderly in Europe and then outline the main intellectual issues that need to be explored and resolved. That sounds a bit pompous but, if one is to avoid an intellectual morass consisting of the various assertions about needs, obligations, and so on that emanate from rival concerned parties and various professional interests on the one hand, and simplistic political slogans whose only virtue is that they cut the Gordian Knot (but provide no real enlightenment) on the other, then we need to be doing just this.

We shall take a few things for granted: that cost-containment is not the be-all-and-end-all of policy; that value for money depends equally on what you get as on what you spend; that overall expenditure per head is mainly determined by income per head (though some countries have managed to get and stay below the regression line); and that it “ain't so” that all one needs to do is to “leave it to the market.” To have justified each of these would have taken too much space so we can only assert them and trust that, in swallowing these camels, you won't strain at the gnats to come.

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