A SHARP rise in Huntingdon’s elderly population poses a “conundrum” for the town, care workers admit.

NHS and charity workers insist the 16 per cent rise in the town's number of over-65s by 2012 should be celebrated as a sign we are all living longer and healthier lives.

Yet they confess rapidly changing demographics will heap more pressure on over-stretched services and cause a potential financial puzzle, with fewer people in employment and paying taxes.

Their solution is to encourage pensioners to carry on beyond retirement age - but only if they want to.

Age UK Cambridgeshire chief executive Gloria Culyer, who agreed the challenges thrown up by an ageing population are a "conundrum", said: "The retirement age shouldn't be capped at 65."

"I've heard a lot of older people describe themselves as becoming invisible upon retirement. That is a great sadness because there is a lot older workers can offer, particularly in the way of experience.

"People should have the opportunity to go on working if they wish and for many that is exactly what they will want to do."

Releasing statistics which show there will be 4,300 elderly people in Huntingdonshire in two years' time, Pensions Minister Steve Webb reassured residents: "We also want to make sure that where older workers want to keep working, they don't find themselves pushed out of the workplace."

However Ms Culyer said society needed to be alert to older people's educational needs if they are to consider an extended working life.

Although she stressed that everyone ages differently and that many over-65s are fit and healthy, some might not want to keep doing physically intense labour or construction jobs.

So colleges need to be able to provide training so older employees can learn new skills and retrain for later life, she said

Ms Culyer admitted there were "challenges about the capacity of services to meet increased demand" but said: "We are living longer and that's got to be a good thing.

"We have added years to life and now we have to add life to years," she said.

To do that, Ms Culyer said it was important to invest in preventative services.

NHS Cambridgeshire head of older people's commissioning Richard O'Driscoll agrees but cautions: "Public services have to get the best value for money."

He said doctors and nurses had already taken the issues seriously by building the Poppyfields sheltered housing scheme in St Neots with other organisations, such as Luminus and Huntingdonshire District Council, which includes facilities to support older people's well being.

A similar scheme is to be built in Park View, Huntingdon and GP surgeries organise walking groups as well as gym referral schemes to ensure residents stay fit and active.

Mr O'Driscoll denied claims older people are a burden on the health service, saying: "Many contribute in several ways to our services as volunteers and carers."