Britain should stop viewing older people as a burden on society, Gordon Brown urged yesterday in a significant pre-election speech.
The Prime Minister said treating the over-65s well was the hallmark of a civilised country - and that the soaring number of pensioners was an opportunity rather than a threat.
Mr Brown told an audience in London it was while he was helping at a hospice last summer that he decided to make care for pensioners a policy priority.
A National Care Service for those of retirement age would be set up if Labour was returned to power, he promised. He also announced one-to-one support at home for all cancer patients.
The speech, to the King's Fund health think-tank, will be seen as an attempt to boost Labour's credentials as the party of the elderly.Charities last night welcomed moves to bolster Britain's ' crumbling and inadequate' care system - but the Tories asked how Mr Brown would pay for the measures.
The Prime Minister pledged for the first time that every pensioner who leaves hospital would be offered help at home for four to six weeks afterwards.
Last week the Daily Mail revealed that more than 500,000 mostly elderly patients are readmitted to hospital each year, often because there is not enough community care available.
Mr Brown said that too often when a society's demographic became older it was seen by the 'youth-focused culture' as a threat or a burden.
He said: 'As a country we need to recognise that it has the potential to be a far more positive change affecting not just our public services but also the shape and character of our society. For our families, I believe it can be a change for the better.'
Older people should be 'less isolated on the fringes,' he said.
'If we are to be a successful country in this new era, we need a society which values the contribution of older people, of wisdom and experience - not diminishing or marginalising people because of age alone.'
Mr Brown said he wanted the country to make the most of people's talents 'for the whole of their lives' and a society 'which recognises our duty to offer dignity and security in old age'.
He said a of the National Care Service would be to help pensioners stay in their own homes as long as possible.
He pledged to roll out 're-ablement and rehabilitation' services which would provide home helps and adapt houses to assist people to remain independent.
The Prime Minister said his 'humbling experience' working in a Scottish hospice near his home had taught him a lot about the needs of the elderly and 'strengthened personal resolve' to improve care.
Michelle Mitchell, of Age Concern, said the speech 'brought hope to millions of older people' and she looked forward to the Government backing its pledges.
But Tory health spokesman Andrew Lansley said: 'This is too little too late from Gordon Brown.
'We have had 13 years of a Government which has ignored the plight of the elderly and has failed to help the vulnerable live safely in their own homes.'