Interview with Ian Philp

The geriatrician and television star on hitch-hiking to Paris, the secret of ageing well, and how an elderly man’s rectal prolapse helped him realise his vocation

June 21, 2018
Ian Philp, University of Stirling
Source: ITV

Ian Philp is a clinical doctor and medical researcher specialising in the care of older people. He recently joined the University of Stirling as professor in global ageing. Before that, he was Marjorie Coote professor of healthcare for older people at the University of Sheffield. He participated in the ITV show 100 Years Younger in 21 Days, which aired in March. Between 2000 and 2008, Professor Philp was the NHS’ national clinical director for older people, and he was appointed CBE in 2010 for services to healthcare and older people.

Where and when were you born?
Edinburgh, 1958.

How has this shaped you?
I was adopted at six days old and brought up by a wealthy medical family, so I had a privileged upbringing. When I turned 40, I found my birth family in Canada. My birth mother was also from a medical family, and my father was a lawyer and professor focused on conflict resolution. His mother and father were communist refugees from Nazi Europe. I believe I am a citizen of lots of somewheres. Both nature and nurture have influenced the person I have become.

What did you discover working on 100 Years Younger in 21 Days? Is there a secret to eternal youth?
The show was a lot of fun. There is no secret to eternal youth, but social connection is the most powerful predictor of successful ageing in later life.

What common misconceptions do people tend to have about the ageing process?

I think most people think ageing is something that happens to other people, and it comes as a surprise when it happens to you. The good news is that life satisfaction gets better for many through later life. As the body declines and death awaits, appreciation of the joys of living increases.

What has changed most with the public’s perception of ageing and longevity in the past five to 10 years?
The post-war generation has produced older people with stronger voices, challenging stereotypes. Positive expectations shape the experience of ageing and are associated with an extension of healthy, active life. Sadly, this positive change has been largely confined to people with high economic resources, and there has been a widening of inequalities in health, independence and well-being in old age across socio-economic groups.

Have you ever had a eureka moment?
As a medical student I did a night shift on a geriatric ward. The nurse in charge asked me to squeeze back a rectal prolapse of an old man. His bottom had literally fallen out of his bottom. It took me a couple of hours of inexpert squeezing to accomplish the task, during which he told me his experiences of the First World War, which he said he had not told anyone before. I realised the extraordinary privilege in being able to offer practical help to patients and the covenant of trust between patients and their doctors and nurses. This was the pivotal experience that created my sense of vocation, and my interest in the care of old people. 

What is the biggest misconception about your field of study?
That studying ageing and older people is dull and depressing, rather than central to understanding what it is to be human.

What are the best and worst things about your job?
The best is working with wonderful colleagues and friends at Stirling. I feel I have come home to my academic roots in social gerontology. We are currently going through an internal review for the research excellence framework, and it is a joy to read colleagues’ work. The worst is going through the REF.

What advice do you give to your students?
I encourage my research students to simplify their thinking – muddled thinking is often masked by academic jargon. Words that obscure meaning are my biggest bugbear. For clinical students, I encourage them to put themselves in the mind of their patients; to seek to understand, then use their knowledge and skill to help patients achieve the outcomes that matter to them.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
I was immature, intermittently studious, restless, insecure and outgoing – generally finding my way in life. Discovering my vocation in older people’s care became my anchor.

What is your most memorable moment of university?
Hitch-hiking to Paris with my flatmate to see a girl. She wasn’t in. We had some great adventures on the way. The cliché that life is a journey, not a destination, is true.

What divided your life into a ‘before’ and ‘after’?
Marrying at 25, followed quickly by having our three children, then having to travel and move house many times with work. As a result, we became a tight family unit, with shared experiences. 

Tell us about someone you’ve always admired.
My grandfather (in my adopted family) was the most generous and life-affirming man. He left school at 14, fought through two world wars, built a small carpet business, and became highly cultured as an amateur painter, art collector and traveller. In the last six weeks of his life, he was a patient in the cancer ward next to the ward where I worked, so I had a special time with him as his life drew to a close.

What do you do for fun?
My favourite times are when my wife and I go for a run through the woods in the morning to our favourite cafe, and the parties we have with our three children and their friends. Our eldest, Hannah, calls these occasions “chambos”, by which she means a social gathering to affirm life, helped along by champagne.

What saddens you?
Nostalgia for 1997, when things were only going to get better.

What would you like to be remembered for?
I don’t worry about being remembered as I will be dead, but I hope that loved ones, friends, family, colleagues, students and patients have benefited in some way from my life.

rachael.pells@timeshighereducation.com


Appointments

Cheryl de la Rey has been appointed the next vice-chancellor of New Zealand’s University of Canterbury. Professor de la Rey, currently vice-chancellor of the University of Pretoria in South Africa, will assume her new role next February. She will replace Rod Carr, who has completed two five-year terms. The university’s chancellor, John Wood, described the former chief executive of South Africa’s National Research Foundation as “an exceptional candidate” with a “significant international profile and a strong research reputation in her chosen field of psychology, and in research leadership and governance”.

Patrick Hackett is to become registrar at the University of Manchester. The current deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Liverpool will also serve as Manchester’s secretary and chief operating officer when he takes up the new role in October, following the retirement of Will Spinks. Mr Hackett, a trained architect, has been based at Liverpool since 2005, overseeing the creation of its second campus in China, having previously held leadership roles at the University of Reading and at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Stephanie Marshall has been appointed interim vice-principal (student experience, teaching and learning) at Queen Mary University of London. Between 2013 and 2018, she served as the chief executive of the UK’s Higher Education Academy.

Janet K. Levit has been chosen as the University of Tulsa’s new provost and executive vice-president for academic affairs. The first woman to hold the role at the Oklahoma liberal arts university, she previously served as the first female dean of the university’s College of Law.

Dominic Elliott will be the new dean of the University of the West of Scotland’s School of Media, Culture and Society, Professor Elliott, who will take up the post in July, was most recently interim dean at the University of Liverpool’s School of the Arts.

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