Making it good for older people

As part of the consultation on a new strategy for an ageing population, we've invited a range of experts and specialists to write on topics of their choice.  In the following article Charles Waldegrave writes about how how we can achieve a better society for older people.


The worry

Getting older can be a bit of a worry. Some of the old reflexes don’t work as well and aches and pains become a little more common. It is easy to feel a loss of capability and purpose.

This can run counter to a sense of youthful energy and so it is easy to avoid thinking about it for ourselves and older people. That, of course, only deepens the problem.

It gets worse too, now that we know studies have shown that loneliness and social isolation create at least as much ill-health and early death for older people as smoking and obesity.

So, should we despair? I don’t think so. Humans, like other creatures, have always had the capacity to adapt to different circumstances and discover new ways to become resilient.

Now that we are on a journey towards a quarter of the population being 65 years or over, it is probably time to do some real thinking and talking with our families and mates.

Local Authority and Government initiatives

All sorts of interesting things are happening in cities around the world. In Hyde Park London for example, Westminster City has built a Senior Playground. This is a free outdoor facility that includes exercise equipment to help users improve core strength, flexibility and balance. The equipment was specifically designed for older people and provides a high level of accessibility, easy use and enjoyment.

This has not displaced a separate playground for children, either. Hyde Park has an adventurous play space that features climbing frames, a swing set and other equipment for children to enjoy.

In Manchester a local art gallery went out of its way to invite older people to tell their stories about the neighbourhoods they had lived in over many years. As part of this exhibition about the history of the city, the gallery offered the participants all sorts of art equipment to illustrate their narratives and also invited them to bring in their own photographs. Many of the older citizens who became involved in this project had never been to the gallery before.

When the exhibition was finally opened to the public, many of the participants shared their stories as people viewed their art. This attracted other older people who had never seen the gallery as a place of interest to them. Younger people also engaged with the artists, as they wanted to understand more about Manchester’s past and the changes that had occurred over time.

In New Zealand the Government-funded SuperGold Card has enabled many senior citizens to travel freely on buses during off-peak hours and has connected them to others in all sorts of ways. This has included trips to friends and family across town, to clubs and coffee places, and practical trips for groceries and medical appointments.

Friendlier cities

Although some older people choose to live in communities with other older people, many prefer to live in neighbourhoods with younger people and the normal range of age groups. Cities could reflect this choice in more obvious ways.

Humans are vulnerable at both ends of the life cycle, both as young children and older adults. Practical thinking and planning for the well-being of older people in cities needs to be as prevalent as it is for children.

This could involve more public seating in parks and downtown areas, more clean and easily accessible toilets spread throughout the city, and pedestrian crossings which give older people more time to cross the road safely and without stress. These initiatives would also be appreciated by others, including mothers with children.

Neighbourhoods need to be safe for older people, both from crime and from physical hazards. This means ensuring there are no inadequate or uneven footpaths, and reserving footpaths for pedestrians by providing separate cycle paths. Walking spaces need to be clean and non-slippery, and green spaces should be made more accessible with lots of seats.

Essential services need to be nearby, with different types of transport available to enable access to them. Where bus routes are inadequate, other forms of public transport should be provided. Free and affordable places for leisure and interest could be encouraged, with easy access to cultural events, arts and sports.

Intergenerational activities

Older people have accumulated history, experience, maturity and know-how. These talents can be shared with children in classroom situations or clubs. Children can learn about ageing and older people can contribute to children with particular needs or by helping them with their homework.

Children and older people can share a love for animal pets, and seniors can show children how to look after them well. Raised gardens could be built so older people don’t have to bend down so far to plant and weed. Planting and weeding projects could be shared across the generations.

Community based services

We need to have a critical rethink about how services are provided. As many older people will choose to continue to live in their own homes, key services like health and food will need to be delivered in communities on a far larger scale. Investment in community-based services should be substantive and seen much more as the norm. These services can be provided accessibly within neighbourhoods or directly into people’s homes.

Consultation and dignity

Most older people want the same sorts of things all of us want, like control over their lives, activities and leisure they can participate in and freedom to choose. Most want to be consulted and do not relish having decisions or institutions imposed on them. They will respond to services and activities that are meaningful for them.

Cities that value older people and work with them to make their neighbourhoods age friendly will attract lonely and isolated people into activities and social interaction. Failure to do so will have the opposite effect.

We could aim to make our cities so attractive and engaging for older people that they simply can’t resist participating in some way, connecting them to others and giving them moments of concentration and joy.

Charles Waldegrave is the Coordinator and Lead Researcher at Family Centre Social Policy Research Unit