'You don't give up your brain for a pension'

June 4, 2004

Margaret Alexander should be retired. Instead, Olga Wojtas hears, she set up a project to promote grey power

The director of Queen Margaret University College's Centre for the Older Person's Agenda is keen to retire. "I was only supposed to be here for a year - and that was three years ago," Margaret Alexander says.

"I said it was part time, but the pace has just speeded up. I'm really looking forward to a new director coming."

Alexander's concept of retirement is more fluid than that of many people. She officially retired some eight years ago as head of the department of nursing at Glasgow Caledonian University. But she continued working at the university as director of Scotland's only World Health Organisation nursing collaborating centre, which is developing nursing and midwifery courses in the Balkans. Alexander is an educational consultant for WHO Europe, an area that extends from Greenland to China, and she supervises several research students.

She is also a consultant to Dundee University's pioneering scheme for an international virtual network of nurse education, Ivinurse.

She was headhunted by QMUC to help establish a multidisciplinary centre that aims to improve the quality of life of an increasingly ageing population. Now she feels ready to hand over the baton to a full-time director, since the centre's future has been secured with a £1.5 million grant from the Royal Bank of Scotland.

Leaving voluntarily to focus on her many other responsibilities is one thing, but how would she feel if she had to leave a job because of her age? "I might feel I wasn't much use any more. I think I'd find something else to do."

And exactly how old is she?

"I'm not going to tell you."

Roughly?

"I'm definitely in the category of older person."

Does she think of herself as an older person?

"I don't think so. I'm me, and it doesn't matter if I'm 50 or 60 or 70 or 80."

This appreciation of older people as individuals, who should not be pigeonholed because of numbers, permeates the centre's work. There is widespread alarm about the UK's changing demography: 40 per cent of the population will be aged over 50 within the next two decades.

"Older people are very much seen as a burden and they pick up these negative views. We don't see that. We see it as a positive thing to have people released from the daily drag of work, with masses of experience that can be fed into society," she says. "So often, older people's voices are simply not heard, nor are they involved meaningfully in the issues that concern them. It is important that they have the opportunity to use their experience to influence change and improve services for this growing sector of people. They are not a homogeneous lump."

There are a great many projects that concern older people, but often older people have had no actual involvement in them, Alexander says. What is different about the QMUC centre is that it works with older people. Local advertisements attracted an initial group of 16 to find out which issues concerned them most. The first thing the group did was to take the centre to task for offering them scones and chocolate biscuits rather than healthy sandwiches.

Four lay older people are now on the steering group of a three-year "Recipe for Life" project to help single, housebound older people to eat well.

About a quarter of older people are thought to be undernourished, with poor diet reducing their ability to stay well and independent. The project will interview older people, informal carers and home-care staff to see what helps or hinders healthy eating. Bulk meal deliveries ignore the social side of eating and may mean that older people do not eat what they want.

Another project, Share (Scottish Hub for Access to Research and Evidence), involves a researcher tracking down good ideas that benefit older people, and logging them on a web database for use by others. One example, found in a care home by development and research manager Belinda Dewar, was a cork board beside every bed, displaying photographs from the older person's life. "It gave carers and staff something to talk about, and the older person would become animated, feeling that people were interested in them.

When you see someone as a young woman with a child or in school, you see them through their lifespan and realise they have a rich background."

Alexander praises QMUC for being "extremely understanding" that some of the centre's projects will not necessarily boost research assessment exercise scores. "Part of QMUC's mission is community involvement and improving people's quality of life," she says. "This is a centre that is not just about research but about practice development."

One of the initial advisory groups - of older people who are deaf - has produced a brochure on the "nine commandments" to ensure that hearing-impaired people are included in conversations. Advice includes facing the light and the person at all times, and having one person speaking at a time.

The centre is also committed to educating older people in how to get their voices heard. It runs a series of free daytime modules to give them confidence in influencing the development of services. These include "drama for democracy", capitalising on the expertise in QMUC's drama department, with participants learning through role play how to complain to condescending councillors, for example, or deal with problem neighbours.

One participant bitten by the acting bug has gone on to do television work for the BBC's Money Programme .

Another module equips people with the skills to read and respond to policy documents from the Scottish Executive and the National Health Service, while another offers help in getting information from the web.

Alexander is delighted with the unleashing of grey power. "It's quite difficult for experts to work with older people because once you've given them their voice, they're not compliant," she says. "One of the older people who came in said: 'You don't give up your brain in exchange for your pension.'"

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