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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.

 

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.

Two recent events are giving me negative thoughts about our Universities in particular. The first is the closure of our manufacturing industries in quick succession and the apparent lack of an alternative solution to avoid an increase in the unemployment rate. The negative outcome of these events not only causes deep distress for the workers involved, particularly as many have worked for decades for these employers, but is also harmful to the health of the country. The dismissed workers have not only lost their jobs but also status in the community and the country as a whole is faced with declining taxation income and increasing benefit requests. Many people saw this coming, particularly with the higher wages of our workers, but apparently it wasn’t at a high enough level for action to be taken early. There is one school of thought which points out that jobs frequently disappear from society and new ones take their place as society modernises. Whilst this is true this has a pace attached to it which is probably unlikely to be matched by the current pace of job loss.
Already some industries are calling out for an increase in qualified migrants as it seems we are short of staff in some fields. Many of us are left questioning why we can’t train people for the jobs in which there are vacancies rather than depriving other countries, often poorer countries, of the qualified staff they need themselves.
These problems require a think-tank approach which I would have thought was a field in which our Universities would have excelled but apparently not. I recently read an article about the way the US tackled the problem of a diminishing manufacturing work force 20 years ago. Apparently they worked out that manufacturing was not the place for their workers in the future but rather problem solvers were the way to go. Surely our Universities, either alone or combined could find a viable solution for us at this point in time. Wasn’t it possible for someone in a relevant position here to realise that manufacturing was not going to be a viable path in future and planned for an alternative?
The second input I had into the way Universities and other research institutions currently work and their role in society was the fact that I am having difficulty getting backing for my own research. The only cost envisaged at this stage is the cost of getting it approved. Apparently the paper work for this is now huge and expensive, even before research gets off the ground. I can’t help feeling there is an Alice-in-Wonderland situation arising here. In the past I would like to think projects got off the ground based on merit now it seems to be based on how many people can be employed in fulfilling and examining the paperwork for projects. Such expensive bureaucracy results in actual, real life research ending up in unopened computer files while the country misses out on research which would have moved us forward and improved life for many. Is that what happened to research into an alternative to manufacturing?
Maybe Universities should be ranked, and awarded funding, based on the amount of human good they are contributing to, particularly when applied to research. I’m not sure what current benchmark Universities are applying to themselves but this may be one reason why very few of the Australian ones have a good world ranking.

For the past 8 years I have been working towards the goal of gaining a Ph D from my study of ageing, which was mainly focussed on establishing a base for aging successfully. Most of the study was part-time and I combined it with part-time work for most of the time. I’ve now reached that goal with a memorable graduation last week in which the University certainly knew how to make us feel special, particularly as it was held in the great hall at Parliament House.
I now need to work on new goals. I started writing a book about my studies some time ago and am now waiting for the reject slip from the first publisher! Several people have told me that I have bestseller material on my hands but getting a publisher to recognise this is another matter as they have to reduce the situation to dollars and cents. I am frequently reminded that the author of the Harry Potter books had something like 14 rejections before she was accepted (wonder how many heads rolled on that one!). I’m not sure I could be that persistent.
Meanwhile what are my new goals? Mainly I would like to work through a University to see if what I found in my research, the main requirements for successful ageing, could help to stop the incidence of, or reduce the progress of, Alzheimer’s disease. Baroness Susan Greenfield, a British expert in the field, lent her support to my research by arranging with Alzheimer’s Australia to allow me access to their members. All I need now is a University to agree to back this work. So far I have approached 3 Australian Universities and been met by a wall of silence, with not even an acknowledgement. Not only is this bad manners but suggests that their own research record is not what it could be. I don’t think that applying to an overseas University would be very practical. Do I let an idea which could prevent people either getting this horrific disease or at least slow its progress go to waste? I wonder if there is still a bias against me by the Universities because I am a woman and/or because I am an older person?
Meanwhile on a more positive front I have been aware that my research was restricted to older people living in the community because this was the only group I could have access to statistics on. After all, most people who go into residential care do so because they are unable to look after themselves physically so in theory they should still be able to lead fulfilling lives, particularly on the internet if that is their limitation. I now have the invitation to access such a centre which I am looking forward to. Maybe my research will progress in this direction.
Certainty in life would be desirable but we can never be sure the extent to which bias works against us. Such behaviour works against countries reaching their full potential.

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.

There has been a lot of talk recently in Australia about spending more money on schools which in theory is an excellent idea but in practice has many flaws, particularly in light of current policy. Firstly the money is to come largely from University funding, taking it away from this sector without any thought given to the outcomes of this. As someone pointed out this means enabling more young people to get to University but when they get there the Universities won’t have the money to cope with them.
There are other flaws too. No-one with on the ground experience seems to have really looked at the current flaws in the way schools carry out their business. One of the biggest problems when I was teaching in schools was that as teachers we were required to do more and more of the parenting. I suspect that this is an inevitable consequence of more women being encouraged to resume their careers instead of parenting, particularly single parents who often have no choice. I am all in favour of this but society needs to recognise it and address it. The role of parents in schools needs to move from being thought of by some teachers as an unnecessary evil but rather as a school asset. It needs to be seen as a positive, and defined in more detail, to get the maximum benefit for school, child and parent. Currently we have an education system based on a tripod with a wonky leg.
Another flaw is that if I were to investigate the educational background of the politicians and policy makers I suspect I would find education being defined as being restricted to the first parts of life. I suspect few, if any, would regard lifelong learning as anything other than being experience based after the first couple of decades. Their own University learning would be likely to date back to when they were in their early twenties, often many decades ago. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that this may be somewhat out of date! In other words they are no longer really well-educated themselves.
The other aspect of this debate centres around whether the current biannual testing in schools is worth the huge amount of money it must cost. I am always concerned that a short test may measure little other than how much time the teacher has spent practising it with them. You can’t really measure real learning on relatively short little tests. Just because that is the best we can do in the circumstances doesn’t mean it is worth doing. It could in fact be doing more harm than good, as some people are starting to acknowledge.
This brings me back to the quality of the advisors, political and professional, in terms of their own up to date learning, and the amount of time they themselves actually spend in schools. The fact that we identify some schools as disadvantaged suggests that the policy makers themselves are out of date. This label in itself will be enough to lower the children’s aspirations and standards.
We need to bring our concept of education into the 21st century instead of just re-iterating what we did last century, and making the same mistakes. Is education itself falling behind?

This is a subject that occupies my mind quite a bit as my Ph D continues to drag on. Unfortunately I stumbled across a list of University rankings and found that the one I am studying at does not make the world top 500 on any of the main lists and is even ranked at the bottom of the Australian ones. This week the University has added two more people to their staff who are in no way academics. It used to be a requirement that to be appointed to a University at anything above tutor level you had to have a Ph D. A few years ago this University had less than half of its staff with this qualification, again well down even on an Australian list. Current policy seems intent on lowering even this figure.

Does this matter? I think it does. Our politicians run the country but they largely rely on others to provide the necessary background knowledge. We can easily dismiss the situation by saying that often people with higher qualifications don’t seem very bright and/or the subject of their thesis didn’t really contribute much to human knowledge ( I remember one thesis successfully submitted at one of the top 50 ranked Universities was based on whether two elderly ladies who lived together in Wales over a century ago were lesbians or not! This wasn’t world shattering knowledge!). The point is that research at that depth in any subject produces a really well-trained mind which the world needs although if the subject of the research adds value to world knowledge this is even better. If politicians were obliged to undergo the sort of mental activity involved in higher learning then political debate would be minus a lot of the crap which currently permeates it.

A second problem is that this type of, and level of, learning can’t be a one-off experience. I cringe when I hear politicians professing to support education, and recognise its benefits, as long as they are referring to other people! Many of them sprouting the need for universal access to education, which no-one would disagree with, haven’t undertaken any formal education themselves for decades. Do they think that what they learned in that distant past will last forever? Given the enormous rate of change in the world knowledge bank we need to accept that learning has to be a lifelong experience. Listening to people whose own learning is well out of date spruiking about the need for education for other people makes me wince. We need to realise that the world is constantly changing and our knowledge of it regularly changes and unless we make at least an attempt to keep pace with it we look silly when we open our mouths and sprout rubbish.

In many, if not all, countries of the world ordinary people strive to improve their own education if possible. They are even more adamant that where possible they will fight for their children to have access to learning. In developed countries more and more people strive to go to University not just to get degrees but an increasing number are moving on to higher degrees. If a country is to benefit from this then the quality of the education involved needs to be acceptable. If universities in other countries are also lowering their standards it will be less of a problem in a highly competitive world. If not Australia is in big trouble.

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!