Ageing issues are not age old

November 23, 2001

Four research councils are getting together to meet the complex challenge posed by a longer-living population. Terry Philpot reports.

Whatever the challenges that will face practitioners and policy-makers as the number of people reaching retirement age grows by nearly 2 million in the next two decades, research into ageing has its own obstacles to overcome. Four of the United Kingdom's research councils - the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the Economic and Social Research Council and the Medical Research Council - together support more than 50 projects at an annual cost of about £15 million. Add to that the number of bodies that also have an interest in research into ageing and the wood seems to be constantly growing and the trees receding.

Now the councils have come together to create the three-year UK National Collaboration on Ageing Research under the leadership of Alan Walker, of the University of Sheffield. Walker is a social scientist who puts his appointment down to "convenience" and "serendipity". He is better placed to run the programme than an engineer or medic because social science touches all the other disciplines involved. Technology, for example, could come up with all kinds of devices, but it could be wasted effort without an understanding of the health prospects and social needs of a longer-living generation.

Walker's own Growing Older programme, funded by the ESRC, is spending £3.5 million over three years on 24 diverse projects aimed at increasing the quality of life of older people. As he says: "The issue of ageing is an issue for society." Walker sees social science as "knitting together different disciplines in ageing research". This ties in well with the raison d'etre of the national collaboration, which will be to ensure that the efforts are concerted. Alliances between researchers from different disciplines will be encouraged, and their approaches will be drawn together. Coordination between research funders is seen as equally important. This may seem a tall order, but the pressing problems of an ageing population, allied with the increasing demands that research should show value for money, provide a powerful incentive.

Decoding the time bomb

Four research councils are getting together to meet the complex challenge posed by a longer-living population. Terry Philpot reports.

"Quality" has fast become the cure-all word from government. All political parties seek to outdo one another by advocating quality public services. Children are subject to the Department of Health's "quality protects" initiative. But what the quality of life for all kinds of people actually means, and how we enhance it, remains as much a matter of philosophical as of political debate.

The challenge of defining and measuring the quality of life has been taken up by the Economic and Social Research Council's three-year, £3.5 million Growing Older research programme, with its ambitious subtitle of "extending the quality of life for older people". Years have been added to life but this research could show us how to add quality to the additional years.

The programme encompasses 24 research projects involving 96 researchers throughout the United Kingdom. Its director since January 1999, Alan Walker, a University of Sheffield sociology professor, now has the added responsibility of coordinating the work of four research councils on ageing.

The new, wider collaboration reaffirms the view that this area of social policy needs a holistic approach - already a tenet of the Growing Older programme.

The ESRC programme, almost two years into its three-year span, extends over six research topics: defining and measuring the quality of life; inequalities; health and productive ageing; technology and the built environment; family and support networks; and participation and activity in later life.

The projects are diverse, ranging from residential care to ethnic inequality; transport to grandparenthood; lifelong learning to the experiences of older women; and cognitive functioning to the healthy lifestyles of older men. In between, there are, among others, studies of older widows; family and work; social isolation; identity and environment; and spiritual beliefs and existential meaning.

What gives particular relevance to such work is the set of issues camouflaged by the phrase "the demographic time bomb". Declining birth and death rates mean there will be fewer younger people and more older people, a historically unprecedented situation. The number of people over 80 is expected to treble in the next 25 years. Retirement in the 50s is not uncommon. Within 15 years, the proportion of the workforce over 50 will rise from 20 to 25 per cent.

The Labour government has begun to recognise these changes with the introduction of initiatives with a strong emphasis on quality as well as cost - such as the best-value performance indicators for social services. But it was the Conservative government that hatched the idea that led to Growing Older when Ian Lang, secretary of state for trade and industry, the department responsible for research, wanted research into ageing and employment.

Dissemination is key to the success of the programme. Communications strategies are attached to each project and communication-impact statements will be prepared. "We must focus on getting all of this into the hands of people who can use it, the people who can change things," Walker says. "We need to think about changing people's lives - if we can't do that, I'll consider the programme a failure. I don't want to produce just another set of scientific papers - now's the time for change."

The concept of "growing older" rather than old age is central to the programme's focus. Walker explains: "There is no magic age at which people are old - we are all ageing. You cannot study older people without studying what they were before they were old. There are some matters (participating in the labour market is only one, if a big one) that happen earlier in life that profoundly influence people when they are older. It's important to be flexible, even though you could be talking about looking at a span of 40 years."

There are objective and subjective understandings of quality. Looking at, say, income levels or the efficiency of transport is one thing but how to judge how older people feel about themselves is another.

Walker says: "What we want to look at are matters such as how two people with the same level of functional capacity have two very different responses to life - why does one, for example, get dementia and the other not? There are matters of personality difference that shape our responses, and we need to understand how family and genetics and the environment can impact on that.

"We want the programme to shed light on what is a very tricky area. But we should see subjective and objective as interacting and not as being at opposite ends of a spectrum. That is how we will learn to understand how two very different people can have a very different quality of life and how they respond to it. But we should also see these factors as not just interlocking but changing over time, so that they can be seen as generational."

The ESRC programme has more than a year to run, but the hope is that a new definition of quality of life will emerge that moves away from medical-dominated models towards something more holistic. Such models would include the many influences on our lives and offer new ways of measuring them. And that itself will guide policy-makers and practitioners to a more holistic view.

For Walker, each project is a piece in a jigsaw - his role, he says, is to put them together so that they are more than the sum of their parts.

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