Why we must celebrate – not ignore – ageing

 This guest blog was contributed by Julia Unwin, Chief Executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. This forms part of our Expert Series which highlights the work of those influencing, designing, commissioning and delivering services for people in later life.

This decade is one of transition – transition as we adapt to our economic circumstances, transition as we try to reduce the impact of climate change, and

Julia Unwin, Chief Executive, Joseph Rowntree Foundation

transition as we conserve resources of all kinds. But it is also a time of transition in terms of demography.

We are an ageing society. This is a cause for great celebration, and one of the triumphs of our time. But it does also represent a transition, as we get used to the fact that we are indeed all ageing and this has implications for us personally, and for policy-makers. We can bury our heads in the sand and pretend this is not really happening. We can hide behind jokes about getting older, behave as if ‘it won’t happen to us’ and allow policy-makers to ignore this major challenge to the ways in which we organise ourselves. We can collude with the view that once we are no longer economically active, we are no longer worthy of consideration. That way we will never have a sensible settlement for meeting the real costs of long term care. We will never resolve a better way for providing pensions. We will continue to think that more of the same will provide answers, even though we know it won’t. And we will continue to treat residential care as a dread destination, rather than a place of opportunity and growth.

The alternative is to embrace this change, and recognise the great prize of a longer life, seize the opportunities that it offers and stop being scared. To do this we need to hear from people who are themselves older, understand their very different experiences, and start to think much more honestly, and much more creatively, about the ways in which we want to shape a good old age, both for ourselves as individuals and as society. An ageing society can be one that values difference, and recognises the very rich and different contribution that we will all be able to make. An ageing society can be one that uses all the skills, experience and talents of all of us as we age. It would recognise that older age is not only about loss, there are rewards and excitement too. It would therefore be a society that is better for all of us. It would be one in which frailty is no longer equated with powerlessness, dependence no longer seen as weakness.

 If we start to see growing old as an important and natural transition in our own lives, we will also be able to build a society that makes this transition in a just, considered and creative way. Such a society will be able to respond to the changing needs of all parts of its population, without hiding behind lazy stereotypes and prejudice. It will structure policies and practice that meet the needs of real people, not just imagined nightmares. 

In a good society, ageing will be seen as an inevitable and important part of life’s journey. Older people themselves will shape, design and provide the services they want. Policy-makers, practitioners and older people together will develop activities and services that meet our very different needs. Services and activities for older people will be at the heart of communities meeting the needs of all generations, shaped by the needs, aspirations and desires of older people but meeting all our needs. Intergenerational activity benefits us all. It allows us to share scarce resources, but also share the joys, and the pains of ageing. Our changing demography provides us with a golden opportunity to re-shape dramatically our attitudes to ageing, and to engage in that great transition with creativity and with courage. Failing to take that opportunity means that the lives of all of us will be considerably poorer.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s ‘A Better Life’ programme aims to hear from older people about what they want and value in life, and help bring their words and images to a wider range of people.

Find out more about the ‘A Better Life’ programme

Find out more about Age UK’s Expert Series

Read the latest blog posts from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation

5 thoughts on “Why we must celebrate – not ignore – ageing”

  1. What is ‘old age’?. I wanted to meet older people on line, see what sort of things interested them, and maybe I could answer, or find people who had thought of some thing of interest to me. What do I find on the ‘Age U K , or ‘Silver Surfers’ Not old people, but people in their sixties or early seventies, many asking for companionship, adverts for amazingly expensive holidays. that’s not old , old is what I am. I am eighty five, still fairly well mentally, despite what my family say, not amazingly active.
    I do not want to meet attractive older men, I do not want to go climbing the high mountains, I would want to ask how they feel, what are their interests, are they politically inclined, what books they like, I might like the same. So lets have some OLD PEOPLE on line. Elizabeth

  2. Elizabeth, you are the first person in your age group who I have met online. I’m a callow 67, so not of interest to you. What I wanted to ask you is how are you going to persuade a generation that hates computers to come and join you?

    1. I think that quite a lot of my age group are a lost cause. If They find I have a computer the first thing they say is, ”It is alright for you, you must be clever”. Silly when you think that my five year old great grandson is great with a computer, he is not very good with it, but is not frightened of it, and I believe that is the secret. Not to be frightened of it. Still, in twenty years the golden oldies will be you, and you and your friends will all be ”clever”.

    2. I expect if you are ill, in pain, you may welcome death. Personally I like the thought of something I read quite a while ago, wish I could remember it properly, it was something on the lines of,,,,,,,You don’t want to go to your maker all smooth skinned and perfect, as if you have taken care not to do any thing that will mar your beauty , You must go all worn out, all used up, to show that you have been there and done it. That is what I will be like, but hope to be on this wonderful world for a long time yet. I have not been wing walking yet. Elizabeth.

  3. Hello Julia,
    Thank you for the link to Andrew Motion. For me, his reading of some fine words dragged the mood of triumph in some of the quotes down to the level of pitiful, wimpish, pathetic, futility. Some of us are rightfully and understandably worried about the future, and the manner in which we may end our years. Indeed, I have heard two different ladies in their eighties state they are ready to die. But many of us will go with a smile, a roar, or in agony. Andrew Motion captured NONE of that. It reinforced all the negative stereotypes, not so much in its content, but in his presentation of it. The man understands less than his well-researched words suggest.

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