What older people want: Sex, skydiving and tattoos

May 20, 2013 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain, Social Economy 

Today sees the publication of a report that Steve Broome and I wrote on behalf of Hanover Housing Association, as part of the Hanover@50 debate. It’s called ‘Sex, Skydiving and Tattoos: The end of retirement and the dawn of a new old age?’ and it explores perceptions of ageing, the implications of these for how older people are regarded in society, and what we need to do differently.

Photo by Emma Lindley

Photo by Emma Lindley

In recent years, older people have increasingly been characterised as a social and economic burden. As life-spans get longer, and the need to provide for older people’s social, economic and care needs grows, we have ended up regarding older people as a problem. The language used about older people is frequently patronising and paternalistic, and this shapes attitudes, influencing how older people are treated as well as how they see themselves.

I passionately believe that we need to think creatively, reviewing our perspective, policies and practices to enable and support older people to keep contributing to society in meaningful ways.

In our report, we argue that the time is ripe to turn the issue of ageing on its head. We need to move away from a culture that regards old age as inherently undesirable, perceives older people as having nothing to contribute to society and focuses on the economic ‘burden’ of caring for the ageing population.

Could it be that older people actually represent a tremendous untapped resource? If so, how can we shift culture, remodel how we accommodate older people and attend to their care needs, whilst enabling them to continue to contribute to society in ways that are meaningful to them and useful to all of us?

In order to explore these issues, we conducted a literature review and held four focus groups made up of:

  • Retirement community residents aged over 70
  • Fellows of the RSA aged over 70
  • A ‘transitioners’ group aged 57-70
  • A ‘millenials’ group of people aged 21-32

In each of these focus groups we asked participants to tell us what comes to mind when they think of old age. We showed them a range of images of older people and asked them what they thought about those images, and used a range of ‘springboard’ techniques to stimulate discussion.

The results were extremely enlightening and sometimes surprising. The retirement community residents said they were happy to be described as ‘pensioners’, saying they saw it as stating a fact about them. The RSA Fellows disagreed, feeling that that it carried connotations of inactivity, stagnation and marginalisation (as in being ‘pensioned off’).

This divergence in views around the word points to the possibility that new, positive language could reinforce a sense of empowerment and enable older people to keep contributing to society in various ways as they continue to age. For the RSA Fellows, being active professionally and feeling that they maintained a degree of influence were important elements of identity, while for the Hanover residents, this was less important that being socially active, although volunteering, and keeping up with the issues that were of interest to them before retirement were also very important to them.

The ‘transitioners’ group expressed a range of views about what it feels like and represents to be approaching old age. With 65 as the traditional marker for the beginning of old age, some members of the group talked about the way they don’t recognise themselves as being ‘old’ and felt instead that ‘late middle age’ is a phase of life that lasts longer for their generation.

I don’t mind knowing that older people are sexually active or whatever, but I don’t want to see images of it. It’s just distasteful

When we showed this image of an older couple kissing in bed, reactions were diverse across the groups. Most strikingly for me, the ‘millenials’ group (which I’m only just too old to belong to) responded with almost unanimous distaste.


Image via http://www.dirtycentaurpictures.com/page/3

Image via http://www.dirtycentaurpictures.com/page/3

Comments included:

I’m sorry but that’s just wrong. I don’t want to see that. Nobody wants to see that.” (Female, 20s, Millennials).

I don’t mind knowing that older people are sexually active or whatever, but I don’t want to see images of it. It’s just distasteful.” (Male, 20s, Millenials).

By contrast, reactions were overwhelmingly positive from members of the other three groups:

Oh, yes, now that’s lovely. It’s so refreshing to see. It makes me so happy to see that. There should be more pictures like that in the media.” (Female, 80s, Hanover)

Ah, that’s an unfamiliar image. You don’t see much of that sort of thing. Sexual images of older people should be more commonly available.” (Female, 60s, Transitioners).

Great, that’s great. They’re in love. I love it. Most people would hate it. Young people would hate it, definitely.” (Female, 70s, RSA Fellows).

The negative reactions from the Millenials group were certainly surprising to me. Coming from a culture that is saturated with sexual images, many of which are far more salacious than this, one might assume that the younger generation would be indifferent to an image like this. The revulsion that some members of the group showed appeared to be purely on the grounds that the people in the image are older. It is noteworthy that one member of the RSA Fellows group predicted that young people would not like the image, and that the comment “I don’t want to see that,” was followed with “nobody wants to see that,” indicating the view that even older people would prefer not to be exposed to an image like this.

Although we were surprised by the vehemence of this disgust, in the context of a society that is overflowing with imagery that champions youth, assumes that getting old is fundamentally unattractive (especially for women) and side-lines older people as having no useful purpose to serve, it is, at least understandable.

So, what do we do? In our paper we suggest three potential ways forward.

  • The word ‘retirement’ is part of the problem – we should abolish it. Retirement literally means withdrawing from active life. Whether or not older people continue in paid work, they should be encouraged, enabled, and even expected to remain active, in whatever capacity they can, until the end of their lives.
  • Society needs to completely rethink older people’s care. Policymakers and providers must lead a move away from institutional care that disempowers people and forces them into passive dependence. They must develop models of care with roots in the community, for instance by enabling older people to share their homes with each other or younger members of the community.
    • These changes should be part of a broader campaign to reposition older people’s place in society. Demographic changes mean that older people not only should be but have to be seen as a part of our human and social capacity. The point is not that older people are all ‘wise’ but rather that there are enormous reserves of experience and time that we are not currently drawing on. It is up to us to choose to see them in this way rather than as a cumbersome burden. This could include a think tank run by older people with a remit that covers the entire spectrum of social issues facing all of us.
  • Industry should look at the design of products, buildings and services that older people use. Most age-related goods and services are needlessly vanilla. They are overly institutional and bland in perspective and design. A specialist design agency could rethink design, revitalising and popularising products to make them appealing to everyone, not just older people.

I passionately believe that we need to think creatively, reviewing our perspective, policies and practices to enable and support older people to keep contributing to society in meaningful ways.  Such an investment will reap huge rewards for all of us.

Dr Emma Lindley is Senior Researcher at the RSA’s Social Brain Centre – you can follow her @DrEmmaLindley



Care about care? Come on then, do some caring!

February 22, 2013 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

Matthew Taylor has recently written several blog posts about the need to reconsider care. His suggestion that secondary school pupils should be required to do 100 hours of caring as part of a compulsory work experience programme seems like a good one for lots of reasons.

Acquiring the skills of caring early in life can only be an advantage, and raising the profile and status of care are important likely benefits of such a scheme. In general I think working with young people in schools is a valid way to try to achieve cultural shifts across a generation.

 Shouldn’t offering care be something that we all do, in some form, and continue to do throughout our lives?

But I also think that it can be an effective strategy for sidestepping our own responsibility to contribute in areas that we recognise as important, but might not want to engage with directly. For those of us who left school years ago and are busy working full time, developing our careers, or in Matthew Taylor’s case, running the RSA, the idea of doing a bit of hands-on care as well might seem unfeasible, not to mention unappealing.

If we are in broad agreement with Matthew’s arguments, shouldn’t offering care be something that we all do, in some form, and continue to do throughout our lives? It occurs to me that there might be scope for companies and organisations to set up schemes in which employees are encouraged to offer their time as voluntary carers during work hours.

There is at least one precedent in which a company has decided to donate employees’ time to charities. The housing association, First Ark Group, has recently made the decision to donate 500 days of staff time to volunteer in local good causes. In the Guardian’s report, published on Monday, First Ark explain that they see their responsibility to the community as extending beyond doing their ‘bread and butter’ work in the best way possible. Being a force for good and building genuine connections with the community are also key priorities and donating staff days is one way of making these things happen.

There is plenty of evidence to indicate that volunteering is good for us. It’s not just good for our communities and for the organisations, individuals and groups who receive voluntary help, it’s also good for the volunteer. In addition to the fact that volunteering brings the opportunity to learn new skills and build different kinds of relationships, it’s also good for our overall wellbeing. It has the feel good factor.

So, if an organisation were to introduce a caring scheme, what would it mean for the workplace? I suspect it would be likely to increase morale amongst staff, raise pride in the employer, develop a reputation for being a socially responsible organisation. If staff throughout organisations, from chief executives to managers to cleaners were all expected to participate, it would give the entire workforce a shared experience and sense of solidarity.

What about the likely costs? How could any company afford to donate staff time to offering care? What would the impact be on individuals’ time management and workload? According to First Ark, these problems are easily ironed out quickly, and all it takes is a bit of adjustment. Tot up the amount of time staff waste at the water cooler, and we already know that being present at work 100% of the time doesn’t amount to 100% productivity.

It will be interesting to see how First Ark’s scheme works out, and whether they continue with it beyond this year.  It seems to me that if we really care about care, we should be prepared to demonstrate that by actually getting involved ourselves. The way working life is structured makes it a tall order to expect people to volunteer to care in their spare time, but I wonder how prepared we would be to do it if it became part of our working lives.

Growing old reciprocally

January 17, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

How do we meet the growing needs of an ageing society? We all have an interest in this question (even if sometimes we also prefer to avoid thinking too hard about it) and over the last couple of years I’ve spoken to many RSA Fellows about their experiences of how acute it becomes when people close to you need care and support.

Some of those Fellows contributed to a report we produced recently for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on making decisions about care (my colleague Emma Lindley, who was one of the authors, neatly summarised its themes in a recent blog).

This week the JRF published another paper, Widening choices for older people with high support needs, which I heard about from the programme’s director, Ilona Haslewood, at a recent event. Its theme is how people can help each other meet their needs as they age, but it also offers an interesting case for why social projects should empower people to help solve each other’s problems, rather than doing it for them.

The report starts from the principle that the care of older people should not be a one-way street, based on agencies providing support to people who cannot meet their own needs. Instead, it argues that approaches based on mutuality and reciprocity – how people can do things together and help each other meet each other’s needs – allow older people to stay in their communities and make a contribution to them.

The report is clear that there is plenty of good practice out there, ranging from formal schemes such as Shared Lives, to informal arrangements such as peer support networks. However, what’s also clear is that rhetoric about helping people help each other can sometimes fall out of step with reality:

“Much is spoken and written about the centrality of mutualism to public service design and delivery, and the role of co-production in the transformation of social care and associated support. […] The reality on the ground for many older people with high support needs is very different.” (47)

The interesting question, then, is what makes alternatives to traditional care work. The report picks out a few success factors, and here are three that seem good general principles for any project that depends on reciprocal sharing of time and skills:

  1. All parties involved need to recognise the mutual advantages as benefits of working together.
  2. It needs to spell out the practical benefits of working together (for instance, participants helping each other overcome barriers and “life’s obstacles”)
  3. It’ll work best if is generated, designed, owned and led by those directly involved

Are these initiatives genuinely grounded in the needs of the people they benefit? Do they make the most of the skills that people have to offer?

The report also lays out an interesting challenge for organisations like the RSA. It generously cites work that we, NESTA and others have done to encourage and support social enterprise – but asks, in effect, whether all the projects we support take the ‘social’ bit seriously enough. Are these initiatives genuinely grounded in the needs of the people they benefit? Do they make the most of the skills that people have to offer?

Put another way, the idea – the model or approach you take to solving a problem – cannot be everything. Working with RSA Fellows, we’re keen to do everything we can to encourage good ideas to grow. Our Catalyst programme, for instance, provides funding and support to socially beneficial projects. What I’m left wondering about, though, is the subtler question of the kind of relationships and behaviours that need to develop (if the above principles are sound) for a good idea to survive in the long run – and to offer the greatest possible benefit, both direct and indirect, to people involved in it.

Returning to the earlier warning about rhetoric outpacing reality, it’s not enough to pay lip-service to this ambition: what’s needed is advice on how to make it work in practice. One way we can rise to the challenge is to share examples of projects that demonstrate genuine reciprocity where we find them. To that end, who out there is solving a problem by helping people solve it for themselves – and what can we learn from how they work?

Sam Thomas is the RSA’s project engagement manager, responsible for improving how people engage with our programme of action and research. Follow @iamsamthomas on Twitter.

Ageing Society: Where are you in the decision ecology?

December 10, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

Our society is ageing, and the scale of our demographic challenge is immense. To choose just one of several striking projections, between now and 2050, the number of people over the age of eighty will triple to around eight million.

At some time in our lives, all of us will be faced with decisions to make about older people’s care, be it our own, or a loved one’s, whether it is in a professional, personal, or voluntary capacity. How will we make such decisions?

At some time in our lives, all of us will be faced with decisions to make about older people’s care

On reflection, the question is not so much about adult social care policies, but the complexity of choosing between different aspects of ‘care’ which often look very different from conventional models of state provision. The pertinent questions become: Who do we trust to help us make these decisions? What are the risks in making one choice as opposed to another? Should physical safety be prioritised above wellbeing and quality of life?

We explore many questions of this nature in our recently released evidence review: Improving Decision-Making In the Care and Support of Older People: Exploring the Decision Ecology’.

Early this year, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, as part of their Risk, Trust and Relationships in an Ageing Society programme of work, put out a call for a review of the evidence surrounding risk and trust in an ageing society. The RSA’s proposal was accepted, along with a contrasting but complementary proposal from a team at Brunel Institute for Ageing Studies. We focussed our evidence review using decision-making as a lens through which to explore the broader issues. The team from Brunel took a different approach, reviewing contrasting bodies of literature from disciplines including psychology, political philosophy and gerontology.

On Wednesday last week, the two evidence reviews were published at a launch event at Brunel University.  I presented our review, and in preparing what I had to say, I found myself pleasantly surprised by the piece of work we produced.

The process of compiling the review involved several members of Staff from Social Brain and Connected Communities  and was not the smoothest or easiest of processes. In all honesty, while we were fascinated by the content and relevance of the work, by the time the final draft was signed off, the process felt so protracted that I think we were all relieved to move on to other things.

So, when I came to talk to an interested audience about what we found, it was rewarding to discover that I felt confident in the value of the overall message of our evidence review. (More generally, it definitely helps to have a gap between completing a piece of work and launching it, which gives you time to appreciate the document as something you have produced, while being free from the gruelling process that produced it.)

The Decision Ecology

Our report paints a picture of the ‘decision ecology’. Jonathan Rowson coined this term to capture the complex social context in which decisions are made, including the diverse range of actors including the older person, their family, friends, neighbours, professional carers, health providers, volunteers, acquaintances and the community at large.

At the heart of this ecology is a triad, consisting of the older person, their informal carers and supporters (such as friends and family) and their formal carers (professionals and practitioners). Like any threesome, this triad is unstable, and the balance of decision-making power tends to be weighted towards the professionals and practitioners.

The insider knowledge that family members have about their older relatives is all too easily sidelined or overlooked, and professional ‘expertise’ takes pole position. The danger is that important personal preferences can be neglected, and decisions made to favour institutional or administrative convenience.

The insights of the Social Brain perspective tell us that the traditional view of decisions being made on the grounds of logic and rationale is at best inadequate. Decisions are still implicitly framed as individual, conscious and rational, but they rarely are. In reality they are influenced by affective, unconscious and social factors, including our cultural biases, negative stereotypes and risk aversion. Because of this, we need to think very carefully about whose perspective (or decisions) should be given precedence, and on what basis.

To make good decisions, it is vital that we build trust. There are various tools and strategies that can help us do this, and taking seriously and making space for personal narratives is one of them. The stories we hear and tell can change attitudes and be emancipatory and empowering. This emphasis on the unrecognised relevance of narrative was a key part of the report.

Challenging declinist stereotypes of ageing is part of our responsibility, along with being reflexively critical about our attitudes to risk.

Most importantly, we need to do everything we can to enable genuine partnerships between care providers, care recipients and their families and supporters. The responsibility for decision-making should be shared as equally as possible, and efforts made to include and respect everyone involved. Challenging declinist stereotypes of ageing is part of our responsibility in this, along with being reflexively critical about our attitudes to risk.

At some point in your life, perhaps quite soon, you will be playing a part in this decision ecology- it is worth reflecting now on what kind of part you want to play. You could do worse than start by reading our evidence review!


Borgen, stress sandwiches, and the unbearable lightness of being

January 30, 2012 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

What is it about the Danes? I don’t have a clue what they are saying, but I love to watch them say it. I devoured The first two episodes of The Killing and am now fixated with Borgen.

The context is Denmark’s first female Prime Minister dealing with various issues with considerable elan, but the last two episodes featured one set of characters struggling with childcare(father offered a great job he feels he can’t take- who will pick up the kids from school, do their laundry, feed them and talk to them?) and another with parent care(an estranged mother who just couldn’t handle the emotional and administrative fall out of her husband dying- what am I signing? What happens now?). Both sets of care relationships pose formidable challenges, and not without reason are the middle years of life, between late twenties and late forties, generally the years when self-reported happiness levels dip.

However, what I haven’t seen much of in stories, television or film is people wrestling with both the challenges of bringing up a new generation while also helping with ageing relatives. Perhaps it is just too much to spin a creative narrative, but it occurs to me that lots of people in this generation have considerable family pressure from above and below, while also trying to advance their careers, hold down mortgages, stay health and sane etc, etc.

In fact, it all sounds pretty miserable. Why do we do it?

The quick answer is that it just sort of happens.

If it is any consolation, this generation can take counsel from Milan Kundera,  who would suggest that it is not so much that these years are less happy, but that they are heavier: An (abbreviated) quotation from his classic: The Unbearable Lightness of Being places this point in context:

“…But is heaviness truly deplorable and lightness splendid? The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground….The heaviest of burdens is … simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become.

Conversely, the absolute absence of a burden caused man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?

Parmenides posed this very question in the sixth century before Christ. He saw the world divided into pairs of opposites: light/darkness, fineness/coarseness, warmth/cold, (light, fineness, warmth, being), the other negative. We might find this division into positive and negative poles childishly simple except for one difficulty: which one is positive, weight or lightness? Parmenides responded: lightness is positive, weight negative. Was he correct or not? That is the question. The only certainty is: the lightness/weight opposition is the most mysterious, most ambiguous of all….

We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lies nor perfect it in our lives to come.”

Perhaps the stress in the sandwich is necessary to give it weight, definition, and taste. Light (meaningless) sandwich fillings are all very well, but they leave you wanting more. I’m off to get a heavy sandwich.