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Bryan Nash Gill’s large-scale relief prints.

If you know of a brilliant project or programme that’s creating greater emotional wellbeing for people as they grow older, please add it here.

On Wednesday I’ll be in conversation with Deborah Alsina, the CEO of Independent Age, at an event they’re co-hosting with Atlas of the Future at the Design Museum. The event is the launch of #AgeFutures — a new storytelling project that maps those transforming the lives of older people, and I’ll be discussing what it means to “age well.”

“We are exploring how our agency and sense of belonging; our participation in our local community and the causes that matter to us; and our purpose and fulfilment change with the decades.”

In preparing for this, I realised ‘ageing well’ is an area I’ve previously done a lot of work in — I even studied it as part of my MSc in Positive Psychology , having to read papers and books on ‘positive ageing’— and yet I wondered what’s really changed because of all the ‘innovation’?

A whistle stop tour of work I’ve been involved in includes — back in 2008 I was part of NEF’s Co-production network, where a large proportion of the network were people and organisations using co-production to strengthen communities and their participation, in people ageing well.

In 2009, whilst at thinkpublic, I was part of the team that designed and ran Nesta’s Age Unlimited programme“How do we find new ways to keep people in their 50s and 60s active and as valued members of their local community, so that ageing becomes a positive experience?” There was even a whole publication written as a result of the programme, called Innovation For The New Old Age.

A few years later, in 2012, I was on the selection panel and worked as a coach on Nesta’s Ageing Well challenge“to unearth fresh ideas to reduce social isolation and/or help people stay mobile and active for longer.” NANA Cafe was one of the winners, alongside Tools Company and Radio Club. On a quick Google, none of these seem to still exist.

In 2011, with the thinkpublic team, I created and ran the IntergenerationALL programme (clever name huh?) with the Gulbenkian Foundation — “a fund to prototype 18 different approaches to intergenerational work, seeking to demonstrate its value and bring different generations together.”

And in 2012, when my friend Ian Drysdale set up a Design Lab in Shropshire Council, I worked with them on how to measure wellbeing in their community activities, especially focussed on Gusto“a group looking at new ways of providing support and community for older people to become more active and independent” — also one of the Design Council’s Keeping Connected winners.

I list all these, because there was so much ‘innovation’ being designed, tested and funded, all with similar intentions, and it’s interesting to look through those lists of projects and programmes, and reflect. There are some great ideas in there, a lot of them were designed and led by ‘older’ people themselves, they made use of design methods, they had lots of support, and yet many of them haven’t survived and I think we are still asking many of the same questions today that each of those initiatives was attempting to respond to.

I wonder why that is? I wonder if one reason is our disrespect and prejudice towards older people, and our denial of ageing. There are projects trying to inspire us towards caring about future generations, and yet we barely care enough for the older generations alive and living in our communities today. Until we shift those cultural narratives and perceptions of the old and the ageing, maybe we’ll never be able to design our way into ‘ageing well.’ There’s also limited space and resource given to better understanding the emotional journey of ageing — how we sustain emotional wellbeing through changing identities and life transitions, and the need for continued intimacy, a topic most people want to avoid recognising.

Anyway, the purpose of this post is because I’ve been asked to write a provocation for #AgeFutures — a short piece that can contribute towards the conversation and help shape where Independent Age focus their future work. I won’t go into the science and practice of ageing better and how to facilitate greater emotional wellbeing, because there are many places to read about that (I’ve suggested some reading at the end of this post), and all the previous projects I’ve been involved in above frame the opportunities well. Instead I have a few other suggestions —

  • Given the amount of innovation that’s been tried and tested already in this area, before starting anything new, it feels important to investigate why so much of it hasn’t stuck. Do we need to fund more ‘innovation’ and new ideas, or do we need to fund the “enabling environments” and work in a different way to build up demand, engagement and a new perception of what to value.
  • Although the name “Independent Age” suggests that independence is the goal, are there ways to intentionally design in interdependencies — when people access services, go about their daily lives or undertake new experiences — how can those be designed so that people are put in relationship with others? Or into different relationships with each other? And in a way that requires others?
  • Related to the above,and I go on about this everywhere, it’s really important that we don’t try and design for lives as if they’re individual and separated. As people age, they bring with them trails, tales and tapestries of lived and learned experience, of relationships, and of different places and contexts. There is a bias to design that focusses in on someone’s individual needs but this can lose sense of all of who they are, designing out people’s multitudes, wider contexts and need for belonging, and designing in ways that isolate or disconnect them from their relational identities
  • I love Atul Gawande’s book, Being Mortal, and one passage I always remember is when he outlines how we’re all ageing, all the way throughout our lives. It seems obvious really, given that we have a Birthday every year, but it’s not something we talk about on a physiological level very often — about how our bodies and its functions are continually ageing. If we learnt about this much earlier, recognised ageing as a verb, and reframed the narrative as it being something that we’re all experiencing all of the time — would that change our perceptions, behaviours and investments in it? Would we be able to have more emotionally rich and honest conversations about the feelings of growing older?

Lastly, is there a way to better link how we age, with how we act towards the planet? Is there something similar or that we can draw upon in how we navigate the emotional experience of growing older, with the breakdown of our climate and ecological systems? This article talks about a “useful framework for facing up to the realities and finding capacity for action. First there is the gratitude stage, which focuses our attention on those aspects of life and the world that nourish us. Then there is a stage that honours the pain that we are experiencing. The third and fourth stages relate to exploring new possibilities and finding practical actions to take.” The stage that involves facing up to the pain and loss is where we are least equipped. I’m sure that those people who are more aware of and able to cope with their emotional journey through ageing, have much to teach the rest of us about ways of coping with and accepting our climate grief.

“We are facing a state of continual unfolding loss, compounding impacts on our psyches.”

I finished this book last night, and in it we are reminded that “everytime we say ‘crisis’ we are also saying ‘decision’. We must decide what will grow in our place — we must plant our compensation or revenge. Our decisions will determine not only how future generations will evaluate us but whether they will exist to evaluate us at all”. Whilst we are living longer, the ways in which we are choosing to live (those of us living in the industrialised world) is shortening the life of all else that’s living on the planet. Those realities feel irrevocably entwined — now we need to weave that reality into anything we design for ageing well.

Written by

Senior Head, UK Portfolio at The National Lottery Community Fund & Co-founder of the Point People. Previously Strategic Design Director at Doteveryone.

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