The Networked Nonna

This post has been re-blogged from the Nominet Trust Website

One of my favourite things is a picture of my Italian grandmother, my Nonna, when she was 20 years old. The war is over, and she is celebrating in a pleated skirt she had sown herself, whilst brandishing a sub-machine gun. Born in 1925 in a tiny hill-top hamlet north of Venice, her lifecycle takes us from the fallout from WWI, the rise of fascism as a political force, the extreme changes that faced Italy post WWII – from latrine outhouses to more cars than children in under 50 years – and the political jokers that we find ourselves with today.

This is not my Nonna!

The internet is some sort of magic… but it feels a very prosaic type of magic when you are 60 minutes into a trans-European phonecall trying to explain how to re-plug a router!








My nonna has worn many hats. Her dreams of being a teacher or accountant were scuppered at the tender age of 10 when her father died – malaria handing him over to pneumonia in the end.  This daughter of petty bourgeoisie sharecroppers became a scullery maid then seamstress then resistance fighters’ runner then market trader. Despite being very tech-savvy for a woman of her time – good on a typewriter, she had cycled hundreds of kilometres at a time during the war and had learnt to drive very early on as one of the minority of women working after it – the computer and the internet had largely passed her by. Until now.

Now I’m networking my almost ninety-year-old Nonna up to noughties. It’s hard work. She distrusts and finds joy in the internet in equal measure. Each day is a new battle; reminding her where the skype button is, ruefully laughing each time she delightedly exclaims “I can see your face! How funny….” The internet is some sort of magic, granted, but it feels a very prosaic type of magic when you are 60 minutes into a trans-European phonecall trying to explain how to re-plug a router!

London to Milan is a very long way when it is your route to grandma. Whilst I know that she has family, friends and neighbours that support her those 782 miles away, there is always that feeling of guilt when I get up to leave. Beyond my nonna, we all know that more should be done to combat loneliness and social isolation, especially in older people. Scientists have found that feeling lonely over long periods of time can kill you: being emotionally isolated can be as fatal as smoking, and common illnesses that are made worse by loneliness include Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, and cardio-vascular diseases.

We try to do our little bit to help out in the Social Mirror project: Social Mirror is a way of linking local people to local activities and groups, using local knowledge. Social Mirror is a bit like an automatic magazine quiz: you answer questions and, if you need it, social mirror can issue you with local ‘community prescriptions’ based on your interests; anything from a walking group, to a photography class and much in-between!

My nonna is something of an inspiration for the Social Mirror project. Working with the wonderful Sue at the Knowle West Media Centre we have been using the magic of the internet to ‘plug’ mainly elderly isolated people into the magic that is local community.  With developer delays and all the usual jazz the project has suffered from some ups and downs, however we all agree that the initial feedback coming in makes it all worthwhile.

One elderly gentleman has even gone from being largely alone to going to multiple walking groups a week. He has been so enthusiastic about the project that he agreed to speak to the Rev Giles Fraser about it for his upcoming series – Communities through Thick and Thin. Be sure to listen out for us on the 15th December, and do tell us what you think!


Original post here 

Gaia Marcus is Senior Researcher with the RSA Connected Communities team, and leads the Social Mirror project.

To find out more, you can follow her on twitter or watch this short video about social mirror.

The image has been taken from this Italian history timeline.

Searching for a way out of hell: mental complexity, wellbeing, and Bob’s Big Idea

May 30, 2013 by · 6 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Looking around at the environmental degradation, financial turmoil, and increased social inequality around us, perhaps you’ve had the sinking feeling that we are creating our own demise.  Presumably you are hoping there is a way that we can work ourselves out of this mess.  You wouldn’t be alone.

Robert Kegan, Professor at Harvard University, gave a fantastic, if somewhat haunting, lecture here at the RSA last week.  The event, “The Further Reaches of Adult Development: Thoughts on the ‘Self-Transforming’ Mind” chaired by Jonathan Rowson, briefly reviewed Prof Kegan’s work on adult development and introduced the audience to his intriguing theory – lovingly called “Bob’s Big Idea”-  about the implications of more people reaching the ultimate stage of development.

level 5

image from  

To get the full effect of Bob’s Big Idea, at least a basic knowledge of his adult development work is needed.  I encourage you to watch the event in its entirety, but will very crudely paraphrase the first half of Kegan’s talk here, where he asserts that humans undergo various stages of development of mental complexity.  We are “makers of meaning” and to organise this meaning we have basic frameworks through which we look at life. We work through these various frameworks, or stages, over our lifetime.  Kegan’s talk focused on the fourth and fifth stage of development (a summary of the adult development stages, produced by Dr Jennifer Garvey Berger, can be found here).

The fourth stage, called the self-authoring stage, is where people start to loosen the reins of others’ expectations.  As the name suggests, this is the phase when you are able to begin to write your own identity, rather than viewing life through the lens of what others think of you.  The self-authoring stage is one in which “we are able to step back enough from the social environment to generate an internal “seat of judgment” or personal authority, which evaluates and makes choices about external expectations”.

According to Kegan’s research, some people reach the fifth and final stage, the self-transforming stage.  If it is reached, it is generally at some point in life after middle-age.  In this stage, people can start to hold more than one position.  They are able to grasp that even their own way of seeing things might be flawed. With a self-transforming mind,

we can step back from and reflect on the limits of our own ideology or personal authority; see that any one system or self-organisation is in some way partial or incomplete; be friendlier toward contradiction and oppositeness; seek to hold on to multiple systems rather than projecting all but one onto the other.”


Bob’s Big Idea

Why is the population living so much longer?  Not how, but why?  Why do we live 20-40 or more years beyond our fertile years?  

What if we are living longer so that our older people can figure out how to save our species?

Kegan’s idea is that, as a species, we are trying to figure something out:  how to survive.  He suggests that whenever a species moves collectively in a direction, it is always for one reason, to ensure survival, and it is exactly the same for us. The self-transforming stage, as mentioned above, is usually reached after middle age, if at all. So the longer we live, the greater the chance that more people will develop into self-transforming level of mental complexity.  Kegan notes that we are creating our own demise and effectively asks: What if we are living longer so that our older people can figure out how to save our species?  “Are we looking for a way out of hell?”

As RSA colleague Matthew Mezey summarises: old people will save the world.


Is higher better?

So does this mean that we should all be striving to reach ‘level 5’?

The phrases “adult development” and “mental complexity” get banded about the office from time to time, and in the past I was somewhat reluctant to join in the conversation.  This partly down to lack of knowledge about the topic, but mostly down to the feeling that this type of language felt terribly elitist to me.  It’s not that I don’t believe that people can be at different stages of development (because I do), but more that I am not yet convinced that higher is necessarily better.  Is there any correlation between level of mental complexity and happiness or wellbeing?

Speaking to Kegan after the event, I learned that the answer is twofold, and depends on the sense in which we talk about wellbeing.  Hedonic wellbeing is about affect and an element of life satisfaction; that is, it is what we mean when we think of wellbeing as being in a good mood, enjoying the moment, and having general life satisfaction.  Interestingly but perhaps not surprisingly, there does not seem to be a correlation between stage of development and hedonic wellbeing; people at all stages are subject to a similar rollercoaster of joys and sorrows.

Eudemonic wellbeing, on the other hand, is less about feeling pleasure and more about having feelings of meaning, purpose, belongingness; having competence; being self-accepting.  It is imaginable that indeed reaching higher orders of consciousness could be helpful in achieving these components of wellbeing. 

reaching higher orders of consciousness could be helpful in achieving these components of wellbeing

When the conversation turned to mental illness, Kegan explained soberingly that paranoia might look very different to someone in a self-authoring stage of development than someone in self-transforming stage of development.


As with so many important questions, the answer is nuanced.  This blog post has not done justice to Kegan’s talk last Thursday.  I encourage you to listen to the talk, regardless of your views on Bob’s Big Idea, as a great way to learn more about the higher levels of adult development and to open up similar thought-provoking questions.


Nathalie Spencer is part of the RSA’s Social Brain Centre

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

Image via

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



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!


How old is old?

October 29, 2012 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

I recently had a very interesting conversation with a colleague, stimulated by an exciting new project we’re about to embark on, which will explore attitudes to and perceptions of old age.

We discussed ways in which we might approach our research into the area, and considered the possibility of holding deliberative workshops with participants of varying ages. It seemed like it would be particularly helpful to talk to a group of what I’ve called ‘transitioners’ – people who are approaching ‘old age’ but not quite there yet.

Deciding on the actual age that would be appropriate to include in this group was trickier than you might think. My opening suggestion was that we go for the 60 to 70 range.

I’m sure I was somewhat influenced by thinking about my parents, who, in their early sixties, certainly don’t think of themselves as belonging to the category of ‘old age’. Both still working in some capacity, they recently holidayed by sea-kayaking off the coast of northern Scotland, in spite of autumnal gales and squally showers. Dad runs 10k in under fifty minutes, and last year Mum shifted several tonnes of millstone grit and built a 20 metre curved dry-stone wall out of it.

As life expectancy creeps up and the retirement age gets pushed higher, the boundaries of when exactly old age starts get fuzzier.

Of course, they’re showing some signs of ageing, and are perhaps starting to think about how they’ll fill their time once they’ve both completely withdrawn from work, but they’re definitely not there yet. Transitioners, for sure.

But, you can’t design research sampling techniques based mainly on personal reflections about your parents. After some more deliberation, we settled on 50-65 for the transitioners age group. Given that retirement usually starts around 65, it seemed that the fifteen years approaching this time could reasonably be considered as transitional.

These definitional challenges are slippery though. As life expectancy creeps up and the retirement age gets pushed higher, the boundaries of when exactly old age starts get fuzzier. Are we right to put fifty year olds in the transitioners category, when many of them may easily still have twenty or more years of working life left?

It’s perhaps not surprising that many people want to put off being classed as being ‘old’ for as long as possible, which suggests that there’s an assumption that oldness is fundamentally an undesirable state.

This puts me in mind of my Granny, who is now 93. She has some health problems now, but until very recently she would talk of going to visit her ‘old ladies’ in the nursing home. Practically all of the women she visited were younger than her, but she nevertheless thought of them as ‘old’ and herself presumably as younger if not young.

It’s charming and amusing, but is it also patronising for me and other relations to laugh at Granny for refusing to define herself as old?

Perhaps her insistence on holding onto her sense of identity as not being primarily defined by old age is indicative of a society-wide negativity about old age. Why should we feel bad about entering old age? Can we rescue the social status of old age to make it, if not desirable, then at least not something to be feared?