So What Have We Learned – Part 3

In our 15 December blog post we looked at what the predictors were for poor retirement transitions. We found that although research in the UK is limited, US based research suggests that one third of retirees may have problematic transitions to retirement with a small number having ongoing problems. Factors that appear to impact can be structural – inadequate housing or income, caring responsibilities- but may also be related to people’s experience of working life, poor health, and loss of social capital.

Some research has pointed to the importance of people’s own attitudes to retirement – how positive they feel, how they react to change, and their sense of control over the process. We explored this in a series of posts, see for example:

We also had valuable contributions from Mervyn Eastman of Change AGEnts Coop. See for example:

And we explored the impact of external ageism and discrimination and what could be done to alleviate its impact on people in later life:

  • More on Ageism – blog post about the stigma and discrimination surrounding ageing

We found that initiatives that provide information for older people such as Late Life AGEnda or give a voice to older people themselves such as Retirement Reinvented, Silverlinks and High50 were crucial in changing attitudes to and perceptions of later life. We also noted that the topic of ageism seemed to strike a chord with readers of the blog.

“We live in a society that has little time for older people” [click here to read the full comment]

“In fact the three things older people have told you they want are remarkably similar to what we heard in 2007, and are still hearing today. What people told us they wanted in older age:

  1. Support with life’s practical tasks to stay sorted;
    2. To be socially connected around shared interests and values (not age);
    3. The opportunity to live life with a purpose and contribute to their local community.” [click here to read the full comment]

The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (UK) is already taking active steps to combat ageism – internalised and external – through its support if the Age Of No Retirement, a collaborative movement including employers, policy makers, innovators, designers, academics and citizens working to create a society without age barriers, where skills, capabilities, knowledge and wisdom are valued whatever your age – young or old. For more information on the next Age of No Retirement event in Manchester on 27-29 April go to: http://www.ageofnoretirement.org/

Loneliness And The Age “Industry”: Re-inforcing Ageist Narratives?

In our last post we mentioned that a UCL report had found that people in later life particularly objected to being depicted as ‘frail’. This is a view echoed in a blog post by Mervyn Eastman from Change AGEnts which we are cross-posting here:

Over the past few years, the issue of loneliness and ageing, has received much attention, and substantial funding from a variety of sources. Campaigns, numerous Third Age sector charities, including the newly formed celebrity driven Silverline, have all contributed to a loneliness narrative, which highlight tensions and contradictions within the broader ‘age industry’.

Much written and commented upon, during this period, is not necessarily in dispute. The concept of loneliness being rightly linked to such themes as wellbeing, social integration and life satisfaction (1). Yet there is for some of us, certainly if Twitter comments are taken into account an unease with present narratives.

Notwithstanding the overwhelming funding by The Big Lottery Fund but maybe because of it, ageing, loneliness and social isolation, has become yet another ‘deficit problem’ in the minds of the public, when thinking about older adults in society.

Yet to what extent does this ‘deficit in social relationships’ represent the experience of the vast majority of older people?

Of course loneliness is indeed a relational concept, affecting all generations at some time or other, from young, and very young people, college and university students living away from home, and new mothers caring for babies or toddlers, regardless of the presence of important others in their lives.

Feelings of loneliness therefore are a reality for most of us at some time or other, so why is all the focus and funding on older adults? Social class, material circumstances, inequality, health and our individual experiences during our life course to date, have been readily acknowledged by academics. What is disturbing however is the apparent “gap between understanding of what constitutes a loneliness intervention demonstrated in academic literature and that of those involved in delivering interventions” (2)

Thus, at the outset we have fairly robust loneliness definitions but how we think about older adults, within that framework and subsequent responses, raises for me the ugly ageist spectre of demographic time bombs; non affordability of health and especially social care; dementia tsunami and end of life experiences to name just a few.

Perhaps because we all experience loneliness at some time or other, when viewed only through the lens of ageing, we by default, incorporate it into the ageist construct of deficit, sickness, dependency, age apartheid and compassionate ageing.

Responses therefore can become, at an individual level, overwhelming, intrusive, patronising, paternalistic, all of which we of course, professionally frame as ‘person centred’.

For the avoidance of doubt I am including befriending, outings, helplines, day centres, a bus, a shopping service or a visiting young person (must not forget the inter- generational).

These interventions may or may not have a short or long term impact, but the jury is out with regard to their sustainable effectiveness in addressing the ‘psychological perspectives’ of chronic loneliness, risk, experience and resolution. Do these responses address how the ‘recipients’ think about themselves, their interpersonal experiences, social skills, long term unemployment, personal traits and possible passive roles, all of which can lead to a disconnect (real or imagined) with their personal sense of “belonging”?

Research by and large has failed to square the circle between negative framing of survey questions and the immensely personal perceptions of the ‘subjects’ leading to the interpretation of loneliness (self- defining) and the interplay between internal and external factors which increase or decrease the risk of “loneliness in later life” (3).

Thus, in understanding, or rather determining the antecedents of loneliness, we attempt to think outside the ageist box by building a bigger ageist box! A box full of deficits. There cannot, therefore, be a ‘holy grail’ or a “gold standard“ defining loneliness, nor an exhaustive operational definition (4). Mind the Gap!

Not surprisingly, this disconnect, leading to loneliness ageist narratives and messages is particularly evident at Christmas time, with our attention particularly drawn to the ‘plight’ of older adults, reflected in Dickensian myths of family life, of present giving, roast goose and turkeys and tinsel covered trees.

Clearly Scrooge had only himself to blame, as the ageing miser, whilst his brow beaten employee, with a young child living with a disability, enjoyed a fulsome family life in spite of their poverty.

The relationship between these two images remain today in our consciousness.

It is now, not the supernatural that visited ‘Operation Street’ (a series of TV programmes predominantly about older adults experiencing feelings of loneliness) but James Martin a celebrity chef, playing the part of the converted and reinvented Scrooge.

Not stretching the analogy too far, lest it fall apart, the message and narrative of the series made us feel better, with the affable chef and the ever so grateful recipients of his largess!

Radio 5 launched a Take 10 initiative encouraging us to think about who we could spend ten minutes talking to.

A range of celebrities from the world of sport, entertainment and journalism, of course, were first in the queue pledging to call old friends.

The initiative predicated on the assumption that ‘a short conversation can go a long way’.

If I had a call from an old friend whom I had not heard from (or even wanted to) for some time, they would have gotten short shrift!

Swedish research was quoted by The Campaign to End Loneliness, evidencing that “brief acts of kindness to help those who are lonely and to help themselves, from simply recognising people, to greeting them, taking part in a short conversation through helping out.” (5)

It is that largess and grateful recipient that grates. It is the portrayal of lonely older adults, victims of the so called “plague of loneliness” that ‘others’ Older People.

It takes away a sense, or experience, of empowerment, of choice, and of control thus infantilising us. Yet again older adults the recipients of well meaning but potentially deadly responses and interventions of 19th Century benevolence. (6)

Paul Durrant made an insightful and powerful comment in an on line response to Promising Approaches to Reducing Loneliness and isolation in Later life, a report produced jointly by AgeUK and The Campaign to End Loneliness.  

He argued that the Foundation, Gateway and Direct Service interventions promoted in the report were basically “doing things to people” (Top Down) rather than  “establishing an ongoing dialogue about radically exploring some contemporary and more inclusive options” (7)

This was not surprising coming from somebody with a community development background. He furthermore offered two grass root approaches to addressing and responding to loneliness. Two examples that, in my opinion, go to the very heart of shifting current narratives and hence responses, so favoured by celebrities, funders and charities. 

First supporting and developing community based enterprises such as  co-operatives and mutuals and second asset based community development (known as ABCD).

These approaches recognise from the outset, and indeed it underpins, their responses and solutions, that all of us, including older adults, lonely or not, are assets in our own right and local communities and neighbourhoods, have natural leaders, retired or not.

It is encouraging that we in the Co-operative commonwealth, are exploring and re-inventing, the more ‘Owenite’ values in ownership, and governance structures, based on the Co-operative Village, community development and social cohesion.

It is however these type of approaches, that potentially change the narrative around loneliness, not just regarding Older People but the whole community and hence responses addressing loneliness are not an event, or even a series of events based on benevolence, but a process, a process that becomes sustainable and empowering.

The Age of No Retirement movement has also, in recent months, attempted to bring about changes in attitudes, using an innovative and broad approach.

To be fair to Positive Approaches, it did in fact, via the concept of ‘structural enablers’, touch upon the need to  “maintain existing relationships and enable new connections and emotional support services” including asset based responses.

Emphasising however services to and for Older people, within the context of neighbourhoods, the reference becomes firmly rooted in the broader service driven narrative and hence lost its potency.

Returning to psychological perspectives, the inter relationship between the individual and changes in their social systems, e.g. the family and employment and resultant feeling of loneliness, requires some comment.

Loss of past relationships, can of course lead to devastating consequences for some people.

Here, we need to consider sociological problems, whereby tasks, roles and functions of a deceased, separated, divorced or absent significant other, are no longer fulfilled or dramatically changed by caring responsibilities.

If no substitute is found, these tasks may be undertaken by others inside or outside the family or neighbourhood communities.

Civic and civil society, might think that by providing, for example home care, befriending, or day centre services, the individual’s needs are met.

In terms of tasks maybe, but not withstanding the absurdity of 5 -15 minute visits, in terms of meaningful relationships that existed prior to the loss, not at all. The subjective feelings of loneliness, are governed by loss and grief, impacting on the individual’s psychological well being.

Pretty obvious, but so often ignored or rationed out and hence left unexplored and unresolved.

More recently attention has turned to informal Mindfulness, in exploring loneliness and self esteem, offering a complementary approach (8).

The process through which we can reflect, and bring into consciousness, our past events and experiences, but of significant relevance, our present and our future.

Gill Hasson, a personal development specialist argues, that our sense of self, self esteem and confidence, is influenced, even shaped, by our “ thoughts, feelings and ideas” about ourselves  “ in the past and future”(9).

This is interesting, in the context of the existing doom and gloom laden narratives of age and ageing.

Thinking about getting older, is it any wonder so many feel pessimistic, fearful, anxious and hopeless.

Present Loneliness narratives have secured their place firmly within the deficit, dependency and sickness view of later life.

It is encouraging to see, however, that the Gulbenkian Foundation and others are exploring the potential of mental resilience building, through interventions such as mindfulness, to support later life transitions.

As I am writing LBC Radio is advertising a week long series of programmes highlighting the plight of older adults.

Try as we might, to portray positive ageing and show images and tell stories of Older People risking life and limb bungee jumping, dancing, being ‘disgraceful’ enjoying their and others’ sexuality, or being “young at heart” the predominant message from civic and civil society is that ageing now equals loneliness!

This negativity can so easily become our own ‘self-talk’ and hence our future self. Hasson references ‘mind traps’ leading to leaping to conclusions, catastrophising  and tunnel thinking which undermines self esteem and feeling bad about ourselves (10)

In Transactional Analysis (TA) we would be referencing ‘self scripts’, ‘victims, rescuers and persecutors’, ‘framing and re framing’ .

Both TA and Mindfulness, seek to assist the individual to recalibrate and reframe how we think about ourselves into more positive and optimistic mind sets. 

The relevance here is self evident. If civil and civic society by and large promote negative ageing, on false age assumptions, it will also seek to rescue us (compassionate ageism) targeting us with its’ media benevolence .

I personally do not buy into the ‘ old equals wisdom’ mantra, nor do I accept that we are ‘entitled’ because of past contributions.

We contribute now and we are an economic benefit.

I believe we have a responsibility, to not collude with the modern day ‘converted Scrooge’ hand outs, whilst being ever so grateful.

We are not victims of loneliness waiting to be rescued.

In conclusion, eliminating loneliness is neither possible or even desirable. Addressing chronic loneliness through how we think about ourselves and developing meaningful relationships may require facilitation but let that come from acknowledging ourselves as an asset and being in control of the community’s responses . This may go some way to reframe the current narratives of the Loneliness and Age sector industries’  broader  patronizing and paternalistic view of older adults. It requires a mutual responsibility including that of the individual and a different menu of responses.

Loneliness is not a disease, despite its pathologisation, nor a plague but there is a poverty of loneliness, that affects all generations, at a different times, in different circumstances in different ways.

It is time to change the narrative from deficit and victim to asset and start seeing Older People experiencing loneliness as adults.

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REFERENCES

  1. JYLHA M and SAARENHEIMO M. Ch 24. Loneliness and Ageing Comparative Perspectives in SOCIAL GERONTOLOGY Ed DANEFER.D and PHILLIPSON C. ( Sage 2013 )
  2. JOBLIN K  Promising Approaches to reducing loneliness and isolation in Later life. (Age UK and The Campaign to End Loneliness 2014)
  3. JULHA M and SAARENHEIMO M
  4. Ibid
  5. CAMPAIGN TO END LONELINESS “A Christmas Less Lonely” email Christmas message 18.12.14
  6. FRIEDMAN B. The Fountain of Age ( Simon&Schuster 1993)
  7. DURRANT P. Comments on Promising Approaches 26.01.15 ( on line)
  8. HASSON G. Mindfulness. Ch 6. Mindfulness for Self Esteem: Confidence, Self esteem and Loneliness. ( Capstone 2013)
  9. Ibid
  10. Ibid

New interpretations of later life

On Wednesday we talked about negative imagery and language around ageing. But as we mentioned in our blog post Positive Images of Ageing there are signs that things are changing. Here are some examples that struck us as exemplifying the new interpretation of later life:

The Age of No Retirement aims to be a social movement that aims for a society where every citizen has the skills, support and opportunities necessary to live a full, productive and fulfilling life.

Other examples of initiatives that emphasise a more positive interpretation of later life include Retirement Reinvented who wrote a blog for us on Wednesday 25 Feb, and Silverlinks where people in later life volunteer to help others by sharing their experience.

There are also some signs that the media might be reassessing its attitude to ageing: Dame Judi Dench for example said in a recent interview: “People immediately associate old age with infirmity.” But now Dame Judi Dench and some of her contemporaries are staging their own fight back with films like The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Love Is Strange and Still Alice which all show people embracing later life and the opportunities it can bring in spite of challenging ‘Transitions’ and changes in circumstances as well as physical and mental health.

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel film has been used globally to promote/discuss Entrepreneurship in Later Life via the ‘Global Summit Series on The Experienced Economy and Multi-Generational Entrepreneurship’ which was held recently in London and Dublin organised by http://eprovstudio.com/ to focus on the ‘Experienced Economy’

Another example is the website Mariella Frostrup cited recently in her article about ageing, High 50, which resolutely steers away from ailments to offer viewers information about beauty and culture and travel. And although the section on health mentions dementia it also talks about healthy eating, yoga practice, and wearable technology.

In the research we are doing on behalf of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (UK) about building resilience in later life there has always been an emphasis on the need to work with (rather than for) older people in determining what interventions might be useful. Yesterday we held a workshop with some active 50+s who have attended retirement courses to discuss their experiences and whether we are on the right lines with our ideas – of which we will be reporting soon.

Resisting Everyday Ageism: Who’s afraid of being old?

Today we feature a guest blog by Mervyn Eastman, co-founder and co-director of Change AGEnts:

Most of us are familiar with the pernicious myths and stereotypes about ageing that impact on our daily lives as we get older. Being considered as ‘frail’, forgetful and doddery, lonely, living with dementia, sexless and abused; examples of what Julia Neuberger calls ‘Not dead Yet!’

If ageism is a reflection of a culture being deeply gerontophobic, in that so many people now fear ageing and hold prejudices against the over 60’s, how can we change those beliefs and behaviours. Thus reclaiming our positive sense of who we are in those later years? The challenge in confronting both discrimination and broadly, ageism, is perhaps a challenge to ourselves first. We complain about being treated unfairly and ‘past almost’ everything that defined us as younger but at the same time seem pretty relaxed about terms like ‘pensioner’, ‘elderly’, ‘silver whatever’, all terms that conjure up negative and decline narratives. We, as older people, also think of older people as somebody else – those in long term care, dependent, sick, poor, lonely etc. This acceptance and collusion with such negative terms, plus feeling that our chronological age entitles us to respect and deference and we are owed for past years social and economic contributions, feed in my view, ‘everyday ageism’.

Attitudes which dominate our society arguably reflect the interests of the more powerful and influential social groups. Yet we are, as over 60’s, in general terms of demographic numbers, a ‘powerful and influential social group’. So why do we feel so disempowered with little, if any, collective influence in addressing everyday ageism? Is it because we ourselves are ageist viewing older people not as individuals but a homogenous group which can be discriminated against? How far do we as ‘older’ (read oldies, wrinkles, coffin dodgers, burdens, dependent, frail, elderly, silver…whatever, bed blockers…) help perpetuate and foster prejudices about the experience of so called old age, restrict our social role and status and thus become part of the problem?

Herein lies the core issue. We do not see ourselves as old (positive?) but see everybody else in their later years as old (negative?). Surveys evidence that just under a half of those surveyed have experienced ageism within the past year (Swift H: 2014) and at the same time fear and anxious about their futures.

It is this apparent contradiction about every day ageism that arguably re-enforces it ‘ugliness’. There is yet to be a grass roots movement or organisation (though the Age of No Retirement might –  if not captured by age experts and Charities etc).

We accept the notion that ageing is about dependency, deficit and sickness. We use the language of ageism and we hide the narrative of decline, cost/care burdens, plight, negative images and we must do something to and for these ‘others’ as being compassionate. If the narrative is compassionate enough celebrities, funders, politicians and organisations will applaud and want to be associated with it! BUT IT IS A REFLECTION OF EVERYDAY AGEISM.

“Changing everyday ageism…”, to quote Bonnie Kupperman ( My Senior Portal) “…starts with you and me.”

We look forward to future blogs by Mervyn we understand he is working on…

More on ageism

In Monday’s post Mervyn Eastman makes a case for reclaiming a positive sense of who we are in later years. He states: ‘The challenge in confronting both discrimination and broadly ageism is perhaps a challenge to ourselves’. He suggests that the acceptance of negative stereotyping and language help perpetuate prejudice and put a restriction on social role and status in later life. Eastman points out that, ‘We do not see ourselves as old (positive?) but see everybody else in their later years as old (negative).’

A recent article by Mariella Frostrup in the Guardian where she describes her own feelings about ageing also suggests that perhaps one of the most important groups that need to be targeted to combat prejudices around ageing are those who are over 50 themselves.

As Eastman suggests the negative perception of ageing is quite often based on language that goes unchallenged. Too often the concept of ageing is linked to negative imagery with words like bed blockers, dependent, frail. Another example is a Guardian survey of apps for older people. Whilst admirable that an attempt is made to include older people in the digital world, the subtext of the choice is that these are apps for people who are physically frail, obsessed with cost savings and complaining, and so isolated that they need a virtual friend. As Mariella Frostrup put it, ‘The propaganda aimed at the over-50s was certainly enough to make euthanasia look like an aspirational escape.’

Frostrup points to the tension between the reality of individuals’ experiences of ageing and how ageing is portrayed in wider society: Since my 50th, it’s been like inhabiting two separate worlds: a tangible one filled with energetic, sexy, adventurous, hard-working and active friends in their 50s, and a wider society where neither myself nor my contemporaries seem to exist at all.’

Both Frostrup and Eastman agree that ageism is something that needs to be tackled. Frostrup states: ‘Ageism, the last surviving “ism” of the 20th century, feels not only intact but unchallenged.’ Eastman feels that there is a need for a social movement to tackle ageism and mentions that The Age of No Retirement is aiming to fulfil this role. He ended his blog post on Monday with a quote to illustrate his message about tackling ageism from within: “Changing everyday ageism starts with you and me.” Bonnie Kupperman (of My Senior Portal)