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The answer to this question is obviously yes and I wonder how much we will have progressed by this time next year. The main problem still seems to be the lack of involvement of older people. I firmly believe that we will never make worthwhile progress until research is not just done on older people but with older people. We older people seem to be treated like aliens, living on the same planet but with no communication between us. The sad part is that researchers don’t seem to realise that later in their lives they too will join the aliens and be outcasts!

The other evening I happened to stumble on a TV program discussing the latest research on ageing, with the presenter herself an elderly journalist in her 70’s. How refreshing. She could, and did, ask all the questions older people have on this topic. The program included long-running research such as the nun’s study as well as more recent work such as the effect of exercise comparing walking with table tennis. The latter created a problem as it was difficult to isolate the effect of the physical activity and the socialising that accompanied it. More recent work such as the effect on the brain of zapping US soldiers whilst using computers and the effect of injecting older mice with blood from younger mice was also shown. I’m not sure how practical these procedures would be for older people no matter how beneficial! At least we could find out through this TV program what is going on.

To me the big weakness of the present situation is its apparent lack of practicality. Research tends to be on the ageing brain or on the ageing body with no acknowledgement that the two are connected. We are beginning to realise how widespread depression is in the general community and how life threatening this is and how it affects almost every aspect of life, yet with older people we don’t even seem to be off the ground looking at this aspect of ageing. The ‘alien’ viewpoint seems to be that these people are going to die anyway so why worry? Nobody seems to look on older people as a huge resource if allowed to function to the best of their ability, both mentally and physically.

No where is this more visible than facing another year with conferences on ageing without the ageing! Many, if not most, conferences give cost reductions to student participants but not retirees. The message is that students, with no experience of ageing, are more valuable participants than the real experts, older people themselves. Every year I hope that the situation will change but every year the ‘alien’ culture continues.

I don’t think that the big breakthrough in research into ageing will occur until researchers take their blinkers off and see older people as a valuable resource in many aspects of life, and abandon their current ‘alien’ attitude. For any researcher who really wants to make their mark the door is ready to be opened.

 

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This was held in Brisbane, Australia, last week and seemed to attract a lot of participants but I was again disappointed that this bi-annual event didn’t attract more older people. As I’ve mentioned before, 100 years ago there were conferences on women’s issues, run by men, with male speakers and male audiences with a few token women in the audience. Such conferences would be laughed at today and not taken seriously. Why can’t people who organise conferences on ageing see the parallels and learn from them? I’d like to think that this won’t be too far into the future but I haven’t noticed any change so far. I did point out in the conference opening session that I was tired of reading research that was inaccurate because older people hadn’t been involved. The guest speaker made the point that in a recent policy document put out by his organisation they had recommended this. I’m not holding my breath for a world-wide recognition of the value of older people, although I’d be surprised if we have to wait until the next century for it to become the norm.

It concerns me that when people retire at 65, usually because they are bored with their jobs, or feel that their talents are not recognised, or if they are forced into retirement, then a growing number of them are likely to live for another 40 years and filling this time becomes a problem. They lose their self-respect, and suicide, particularly among men, becomes an issue. This is likely to affect more women in future as it becomes more accepted that they too are likely to have careers before retirement.

As Australia heads towards an election both major parties are worried about national debt and neither feel that we are likely to get on top of it for many years. This leads me to question why we don’t take steps to utilise the talents, skill, knowledge and experience older people have. One of the highlights of the IFA conference to me was the presentation by Peter Balan which suggested support be given to build an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem to encourage senior entrepreneurship. The assumption by politicians that only young people have ideas is a sad reflection on the intelligence of those in power. With all our experience and knowledge obviously there are plenty of older people who have entrepreneurial ideas. Why then does the rest of society, particularly politicians and researchers, resign us to a dependency role, and then complain about the cost of providing for us? A better alternative would be to encourage, and promote, entrepreneurship for all those, of all ages, with ideas.

Australia, and many other countries, at least have some idea of the human approach. On the last day of the conference I met a couple of women from Sri Lanka and Jamaica. Knowing that they would have a shorter life span than in developed countries, I asked what their pension age was. They both said 60 but one pointed out that only public servants qualified for a pension. The rest have to rely on their families, or go begging on the streets.

The world has a long way to go before it realises the value of its senior citizens.

 

Finishing my PhD was more of milestone for me as during the course of it I also gave up work as I had reached the 75 year mark and decided that was enough. What I hadn’t given up was the passion I had for my research into ageing, how it is changing and how we older people need to adjust our lives to cope with it successfully. As a result I have continued with the research on my own and am presenting it at conferences. It changes as I change myself as I age, and become more aware of the ageing process. My current association as a visiting research fellow is disappointing as I have no work place at the university so I don’t meet other researchers, or hear about other people’s research, in the field.
I mentioned in an earlier blog that I went to India earlier this year and I presented 3 research papers there. I am reproducing the abstracts for these here in case anyone reading the blog is involved in similar research.
1.Age friendly cities and communities, through the eyes of an older person
If cities and communities could be planned in advance it would produce much better outcomes than their current ad hoc growth which in many cases has been happening for hundreds of years. City and community growth is largely job driven as countries move to mass production and new industries, such as service industries, which depend on large populations. Such consumer- driven development leads to new problems created by mass transportation and a competitive environment.
The current trend of identifying older people as having specific problems may be unhelpful and isolate the group. Other groups, such as the disabled, have many of the same problems, including those created by reduced mobility. By identifying with the needs of other groups we increase the target clientele and are more likely to achieve appropriate outcomes.
Reduced mobility leads to isolation; a problem also created by disruption of communities through migration, and affects an even greater section of the population in cities.
The present identification of improvement to cities and communities as ‘age-related’ could be detrimental to their very implementation. The nature and funding of changes as being applicable to only one section of the population may unnecessarily detract from implementation. What we should be doing is taking a holistic approach to a particular city, identify its problems, taking into account the needs of all the different groups which are its constituents, and propose solutions on the understanding that future developments will not be adverse to these solutions. Each city and community should identify the needs of its inhabitants, recognise current deficiencies and provide leadership for providers in areas such as recreational facilities, shopping mall owners, transport providers, food, waste disposal, health services and other lifestyle contributors, to work towards this common goal. A more equitable and harmonious and therefore beneficial environment would then be created from the present ad hoc, hotch potch collection of services which are arbitrarily closeted together and referred to as cities and communities.
There is a case to be made for cities to be made user friendly for people of all ages, needs and limitations. Bringing all residents, decision makers and providers into the equation and giving them equal partnership could be beneficial to all and provide an appropriate environment for all inhabitants. If properly documented, future growth would then also be implemented to enhance currently identified aims. Cities would then become environments appropriate to the needs of all residents, including its older ones, most of whom have similar basic needs.
2.The rights of older people, from an older person’s viewpoint
The rights of older people as the right to be safe, to have an active role in society and to do so without discrimination, and other identified rights, tend to be approached more from a restricted legal point of view rather than any attempt to identify what should be the real rights of older people and which should be embedded in a society.
Basically older people should have the right to be to be treated as any other adult member of society, taking into account the often increased frailty which accompanies ageing. This frailty then leads to other rights in terms of provisions for their particular needs and should be part of the rights of all citizens in this category. The current separation of older people from the rest of the community currently tends to reduce our rights.
The idea that ageing causes a decline in the functions of the brain has long since been disproved yet society, at both local and international level, continues to behave as though this is the reality. In fact the opposite is true and the brain can continue to expand and develop with ageing making older people a rich source of experience and knowledge. Society continues to regard its older citizens as mentally reduced and therefore as lesser individuals.
This designation of older people as second class citizens parallels the attitude to women and coloured people decades ago. The three ‘isms’ of sexism, racism and ageism have a lot in common although women and coloured people are further along the path to equality and equal rights than older people.
Accompanying the rights of older people to be treated as any other member of society should be the right to equality and respect, not the condescension that currently accompanies being older and is not legally recognised as a lost right. Without this accepted condescension would the United Nations be permitted to have a young woman as its older people’s representative with no plans to empower older people to take on this role themselves? Would conferences on ageing be run by younger people, with mainly younger people as speakers and also comprising most of the audience, just as conferences on women’s issues were male based 100 years ago?
Older people should have the right to be treated as equals and given the same opportunities and representation. The additional respect which should accompany the special status of ageing should be ours to win.
3. Preventing abuse, from an older person’s perspective
The categories of abuse in terms of physical, emotional, sexual, neglect and spiritual are too restricted to be all-encompassing in recognising and preventing abuse of older people. They include the deficiency of not acknowledging that abuse can either be at the community or individual level with most recognition being directed at abuse of individuals. There seems to be an assumption that abuse will be directed at individuals in the home environment, whether a private home or residential care in its various forms. The fact that most prosecutions occur in these environments tends to reinforce this bias. Abuse in its wider sense and in the wider community goes unrecognised; particularly abuse associated with the designation of older people as second class citizens.
There is no doubt that the areas identified above are areas in which abuse is likely to occur, or at least to be acknowledged and are likely to be particularly hurtful and damaging to the individual. It usually occurs in isolated situations casting doubts in the individual about their own status and abilities in society. One of the most damaging aspects of abuse is that it creates self doubt and feeling of worthlessness in the recipient. This is particularly harmful for older people who may have restricted access to the world outside the abuse. A positive aspect of this type of abuse is that it is recognised by society and law makers and can be legislated against, although this has limited effect if knowledge of what constitutes the offence is unavailable to those at risk.
The unrecognised abuse by society as a whole to its citizens is far more problematic for older people as they are among the ones who experience it and who have little opportunity to voice their concerns, and may even accept it as normal behaviour, as society as a whole does. Decisions about older people, their rights and problems are far too often taken by younger legislators, workers in the field and researchers, usually without input from older people themselves, certainly without any partnership affiliation. Does this imply that older people themselves, the real experts on elder abuse as recipients, are incapable of participating in such a legislative environment? If this is the case then abuse will continue unabated and in itself this attitude is a form of abuse in denying older people their rights to be full participants in the community.
Later this year I will be presenting another paper at the sociologists conference and I will include the abstract for that in a later blog.

I looked forward to finishing my Ph D but it didn’t occur to me what a gap this would create in my life but also that it would give me the opportunity to at last have a choice in my life (after almost 8 years of having my studies as top priority). I am determined to turn my research into a book for older people and so far I’ve had support from quite a lot of them. Against this is my desire to do further research to see if what I found can be applied to people’s lives and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. An article a friend forwarded to me suggests that overseas research indicates that people who stay on in the workforce after the age of 60 reduce their risk of the disease for every year they continue to work. This suggests that I could be on the right track.
The hold up is in finding a suitable University where I can have appropriate support. After messing up the choice of supervisor when I started my Ph D I am now much more cautious in my choice. Meanwhile I start a short course next Monday, on-line from the University of Tasmania which hopefully will better my understanding of the disease (after vowing that when I finished I wouldn’t do another course!). This is only supposed to take about 3 hours a week so it shouldn’t detract from my book writing.
Meanwhile I am also wondering if my interests lie more with sociology than gerontology, an area in which I feel my research has never really been recognised. At the last gerontology conference I attended, the United Nations representative on ageing was also there, a young woman. When I asked how long it would be before an older person had that role and what she and two others in similar positions were doing to empower older people I was met by complete silence. Back to the days of sexism when men represented women as they assumed women were too stupid to speak out for ourselves! Considering how long it is taking to eliminate sexism it is very depressing.

After nearly 8 years (mostly part-time) I have finally completed my thesis for a Ph D in successful ageing and been awarded the degree. Throughout this time I vowed I would never enrol in anything else (it is my 5th degree!) but 4 days later I have enrolled in an on-line course on dementia. My excuse (to myself!) is that it is on dementia which I need to know more about, and only lasts for 11 weeks! I am now asking myself if this is addiction or should it be the norm, particularly as our lives are expanding through increased life expectancy. If I keep on learning, adding new knowledge and a new dimension to previous learning, can I add more to the stock of the world’s knowledge? I’m already planning to get as much of my research as possible published so it can be shared.
Do we have an unacceptable mindset that it is advisable to equip as many of the population as possible with an undergraduate degree, encouraging a few to go further in their chosen field and that’s it? Shouldn’t we be encouraging as many as possible to learn for as long as possible in a variety of different fields? After all, compartmentalising knowledge into different ‘subjects’ is not what it should be about. Knowledge should just be one complete entity. For real progress shouldn’t we be encouraging as many people as possible to be looking at different aspects of knowledge?
I have just been to Korea, mainly to present papers at a world congress on ageing. I had a quick trip around the country afterwards. South Korea has so many obstacles in its path to progress with an extremely mountainous countryside and no natural resources yet it has made spectacular progress, pulling itself up by its boot strings in the last 60 years. They have neither the resources nor the time to compartmentalise knowledge. If there is a problem, and they have had and still have many of them, then they just pull together to solve it.
Coming back to Australia is like stepping back into the last century as we just plod along with much of the rest of the world.
Continuous education shouldn’t be an addiction nor compartmentalised. It should be the norm and varied so we can utilise all aspects of knowledge.

I wonder how far my fight against ageism will progress this year? I assume that even though we have the experience of trying to eliminate sexism and racism behind us we will still have to contend with many of the same problems and a similar time frame will be needed to at least bring attention to ageism and its existence. With all the advances being made in so many high level fields, at grass root level we are still appallingly slow to adapt to new knowledge. One of my important photos is of a suffragette march in London about 100 years ago. You would think that in the years since we would have come to recognise at least the economic value of giving women equality yet in India, and many other countries, they are still regarded as second class citizens. I would like to think the timeline would be shorter for treating older people as equals as our numbers increase but I am not optimistic.

My own contribution to the fight is with 7 and possibly 8 presentations planned and I am also booked in to attend a course on getting a book published run by one of the major publishers. My last attempt at getting published resulted in a reject slip, I know the Harry Potter author had many more than that but I am impatient! I think that my mistake before was to try to reach two very different audiences, academics and older people themselves. These are so different in their needs I should have realised it wouldn’t work. This time I want to concentrate on older people, and then academics later perhaps but it will mean a rewrite for each of the two audiences.

In all of this I realise I am standing on the shoulders of two giants who went before me, Butler and Friedan. They both had much higher profiles than me but they didn’t use, as far as I am aware, the 21st century mass media as I am trying to do. I have now moved slowly into reading eBooks which have advantages and disadvantages. One, the Miranda Hart biography combined both worlds by having a video of herself at the beginning of each chapter. As a comedian this worked really well. The other I bought because the normal print version is not currently available. In theory  there should be no difference between the two types of books but I have found a big disadvantage with the eBook version of the latter. I wanted to go back and check up on something I had read which I could do fairly easily with a print book. With this I was more aware of new chapters and left hand and right hand pages and roughly how far through the book I was when I read it. All this is lost on kindle. Maybe I could incorporate some of the Miranda Hart technique if I try to publish in both types of print.

I start the new year on a positive note and hope that we can move a bit nearer to having us older people accepted as equals so that we believe in ourselves and in what we still have to offer the world. We haven’t been on it for so long without learning a huge amount of knowledge and gaining skills which are still relevant. Maybe we can make 2013 the year in which older people believe in themselves and follow their dreams and the rest of the world accepts that we still have a lot to offer.

Move over youngsters!

Yesterday I attended a conference on Aged Care Policy at Australia’s top university, The Australian National University, with many of its senior staff members attending plus a couple of overseas expert visitors. I was so disappointed with the standard. Three of the speakers didn’t use power point which, given that approximately 75% of the population learn visually, meant that many of the audience were disadvantaged. Even some of those who did use it misused it. The golden rule is to only have up to 7 lines of text on any slide- many presenters put as much as they can on a slide and keep on talking. I prefer to either listen or read- I find it difficult to do both at once. When graphs are used audiences should be given time to absorb anything other than a very simple graph and the speaker needs to explain what the graph is showing. I sometimes think that with some speakers the purpose of a slide is an attempt to impress the audience, not to actually tell them anything. At one point yesterday the convener of the session kept asking questions about a particular slide- obviously he was having problems with it too. Given his academic history the fault was obviously with the speaker. None of these errors makes for professional presentations. Those making them go to great lengths to research their fields but then try to explain their work to others through amateur presentations and don’t apply the same standard of professionalism to this latter aspect of their work. The result of yesterday’s conference was a missed opportunity for the audience to learn.

Needless to say this lack of professionalism lowered the tone of the conference. Add to this the invitation only seemed to have gone to a selected few people in academia and the members of the public service (I stumbled on it by accident) which obviously reduced the extent of contributions from the floor. Even though it was on Aged Care (and supposed to be a dialogue) there were few older people participating and apparently the invitation had not been extended to aged care providers so there were even fewer of them, if any. Aged Care is a huge and expensive part of both state and national budgets and involves a large section of the population, particularly when we include workers in the industry, and needs a much wider involvement from all relevant sections than we had yesterday.

What really concerns me is that none of the suggestions made and ideas canvassed makes a contribution to older people believing in themselves and being made to feel that they and their lives are worthwhile, when they are not involved. Even if we can come up with a recipe for acceptable and appropriate standards in health care for older people this approach only meets their physical needs. The way it is being organised, if this conference is typical, does nothing for their self-esteem. The days of Universities indulging in Ivory Tower knowledge and politics belong to the last century.

Next June I will be travelling to Seoul for an International Conference organised by the Gerontology and Geriatrics Associations which will hopefully be more inclusive. I entered 4 abstracts in the hope that one would be accepted and have ended up being asked to make 1 oral presentation and 3 posters. From what I have heard about South Korea I am expecting a high standard as they seem to be making great progress in so many areas. It will be interesting to see firstly their attitude towards their own older people and secondly the provision they make for them, both at family and state level. Conferences invite contributions from all over the world yet the attributes of the host country still seems to shine through.

In aged care, and any aspects of ageing, it is vitally important that older people are involved throughout the process for it to make a meaningful contribution to successful ageing. This is largely reflected in the extent to which older people are invited to, and do, participate in any form of conference.

My wait to find out if my thesis will be accepted for a Ph D is nearly over. I have now heard back from the two examiners. One is even more supportive than she was last time but the other has retreated and wants me to fail. He isn’t even consistent with what he said last time it was submitted to him. Previously he said that it contained material worth publishing but this time not, even though it is largely the same document.

I think the clue to his thinking is his statement that he describes me as ageist for asserting that research teams do not include older people and I am not acknowledging the age of many researchers (the sentence was grammatically incorrect so it was difficult to understand what he was trying to say). In reading the research there is rarely if ever an acknowledgement of older people being involved (as there should be if they were involved) and certainly in my attendance at conferences I rarely see, or hear the voices of, other older people.

A couple of years ago the British government decided that grants for research into ageing would only be given if older people were involved. It is only a matter of time before we follow the same path here. It obviously would produce better research which is why the UK government has introduced it. The problem is that it places in doubt research done prior to this and therefore the whole careers of researchers in the field. No wonder he is against my Ph D being accepted if he feels threatened by it. As I’ve said before there are so many parallels between the way older people are treated today and the way women were in the past. Women would have had to fight to have their voices heard in the literature on women’s issues, and they weren’t allowed to participate in conferences on the subject. I seem to be following a long line of discrimination.

So it raises the question of the difference getting my Ph D or not will make. I have been given permission by Alzheimer’s to interview their members to see whether my assertion that we need a purpose in all stages of life, including the later stage, could prevent, or delay the progress, of the disease. Research shows that if people with Parkinson’s disease have a purpose in life the progress of the disease is slowed. Will I be allowed to pursue this with Alzheimer’s if I don’t have a Ph D? I don’t know.

My other dream is to write a book on ageing for older people so we understand ourselves better. This will still go ahead but it will be accepted more if it is written by a ‘Dr’. At least by the end of this month the waiting should be over. I just have to wait for a panel to decide. Disappointingly my numerous presentations at International and regional conferences aren’t regarded as an acknowledgement that the academic community accepts my research nor are my recent invitations to address two aged care services communities, indicating that my work is acknowledged by them, accepted as recognition of my work. Academia is a strange place.

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 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.