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Last week I attended the annual conference of the Australian Association of Gerontologists in Hobart. It is now 5 years since I attended one of their conferences and little has changed. Unfortunately ageing study is a growing field and tends to attract mainly less than first class academics, which results in poor quality research. At the first conference I was horrified by the lack of participation by older people. It was like having a conference on women’s issues without women. It would have been acceptable the century before last but not in the 21st century. Unfortunately in ageing research the lack of participation of this group is just accepted.

At a conference 6 months after my original encounter with this organisation I presented a paper on involving older people. I was rudely rubbished by the president-elect at the time and her supporters applauded her comments. Little has changed. Even those who do involve older people in their research (never throughout the project) use such small numbers that their work has little application beyond their project. One of the main speakers at the conference commented on involving older people (marginally) as though it was a new idea.

For real participation, and high quality research, older people should be involved in formulating the research question, writing the research tool (such as a questionnaire), analysing the results and writing up the report. Where older people are not trained for this such training should be provided. Not only would it produce better research results but it would prevent researchers making fools of themselves through comments which show a lack of understanding of the issues involved with ageing.

I attended the conference dinner, which I usually avoid, as I did 5 years ago. Again little had changed. The so-called ‘music’ was too loud for conversation so we were left to watch somewhat inebriated academics doing what they called ‘dancing’, which seemed to involve waving various bits of their bodies around. The person from South Korea I was sitting next to managed to say, in a moment of quiet, that they would be ashamed of their behaviour next day, until I pointed out that the alcohol was flowing so freely they wouldn’t remember. I would have loved to have talked with those with international experience around me but it was far too noisy.

This is the life of those involved in research into ageing. Frankly I believe that older people deserve better than this. If the ageing population is a problem then it is mainly because our voices are not being heard and those researching these problems are not setting high enough standards for themselves. It is sad that their’s are the voices being listened to, and getting the grant money, while the elderly can’t afford to attend such conferences and be heard.

I have always felt that having my research sitting in a thesis on a dusty shelf was a bit of a waste and I have always been determined to publish it as a populist book. I have now even abandoned the thought of publishing articles in appropriate journals they usually have limited circulation and the audience is almost 100% younger people who wouldn’t appreciate the relevance of it.

Currently my thesis is with three examiners, hopefully with intimate knowledge of older people, and not obtained from what other younger researchers have written. There are too many holes in this type of research, all theory and no practice.

Meanwhile I am having a fruitful time putting my research into a book which is aimed at older people themselves, and also pre-aging people. It is so different writing in a more personal style, in which there is no word limit and no longer does each word have to be formal and necessary. What makes it easier is that I am not writing about ‘them’ but about ‘us’ as an older person myself. By continuing my career until the age of 73 I know what is possible because I am doing it myself.

I am continuing to read the latest books about brain plasticity and how increasingly important this is to older people. The old ‘use it or lose it’ saying has now been amended to ‘use it as much as possible’. With an anticipated 1.13 million Australians predicted to have Alzheimer’s disease by 2050 a scary picture is presented. One author pointed out that we have got ourselves into an unacceptable predicament and we need to work towards extending brain health to that of life expectancy. I still feel that research into Alzheimer’s disease focusses on finding a cure, not prevention. This is cynically tied in with the fact that the organisations doing the research are all medical people who can’t look outside the square, nor does their careers support a non-medical prevention approach.

We are in the midst of an election in Australia. It really saddens me that neither party has announced a policy on our Aboriginal people, in spite of world condemnation of our treatment of them. Presumably the politicians don’t feel that their votes are worth chasing.

Since the voice of older people is only heard through the young people employed by the major senior organisations, the situation as regards this section of the population is much easier, although the policies are often irrelevant as far as genuine older people are concerned.

I hope I can find an international publisher for my book as I think its relevance stretches beyond Australia.

I recently flew down to Melbourne to attend the 14th Kenneth Myer lecture sponsored by the Florey Neuroscience Institutes. This lecture is given by a different world leader in different aspects of brain research and is always of the highest standard. This year it was on memory and how our brains create and store memory, and was given by renowned British Neurophysiologist Professor Tim Bliss who is not only a brilliant researcher but is also able to use language which a layman can understand.

The Institutes always aim for high standards but I found myself concerned by a project they are running on brain fitness. The programme is excellent but the cost to participate is $485 for a team of 5. This automatically rules out large sections of the population, including those who don’t work in institutions where such a team can be formed (and hopefully paid for by the employer) and, in particular elderly people. There are so many myths around about the brains of this latter section of the population that I question the accuracy of research which excludes them. I suspect that this group is a particularly fruitful area of research in so many ways, not least of which is that we are becoming a large and therefore important section of the population. 

My flight back took me to the beginning part of the life cycle. The gentleman behind me paid extra for his early school year children to watch TV during the 45 minute trip. It was a short flight in a relatively small plane so that the ground below was visible for almost all of the trip. Below us was the rich tapestry of geography that is part of the eastern seaboard of our country. Seeing it at our feet would have provided a much richer lesson in so many ways than any school can provide. Instead of looking at it and understanding the country way of life, and how the early pioneers developed the land, these poor kids were glued to cartoons on the TV. Part of the blame for this parental attitude must lie with our schools who give the impression that only they educate our children.

I was made aware of how easily we can be led astray by words, particularly if they are used by the media, when I recently made a trip to Sydney to see the spectacular Ben Hur. I’m not sure if I would have gone if that word hadn’t been used in the advertising for it! Actually I was glad I had seen it although I, like all the audience around me, were equally disappointed. Maybe it improved on the second night.

This production originated in Paris and I couldn’t help feeling that an Australian production might have really been spectacular. We seem to be a country where people are encouraged to ‘have a go’ which tends to favour invention and new and daring ideas. Maybe I have been here so long I am becoming biassed!

I think that there were something like 80000 people at the show but the way the railways handled that number of people all leaving the stadium together was much more spectacular, particularly as they are a service which is usually much maligned. Had anything gone wrong it could have been quite frightening but it was perfectly timed. I think that as an older person I have become much more aware of my personal safety.

We hear a lot about congestion in our cities with roads carrying more traffic than they were intended to do and more and more people being squashed into a small area. What struck me on this visit is that the congestion and feeling of being hemmed in isn’t just on the horizontal level. I went on a ferry trip to Fort Denison on the harbour. The whole time there seemed to be a constant stream of helicopters overhead. I felt even more claustrophobic with the space above me no longer being free and open. We really should take more seriously what we are doing to people when we squash them into our rapidly growing cities, even filling the air space above them. What psychological problems are we creating? I suspect that this all happens so relatively slowly that the residents don’t realise what is happening. It is only when a visitor revisits a city they once lived in that changes are seen for what they are.

Sydney is noted for its beautiful harbour but it relies for this on its peace and tranquility. Let’s not pollute the air space above it.