Published on January 13, 2010

We’re all living longer. So let’s talk about it.

Great news: We’re all living longer. So let’s talk about it…

Here at Involve we are starting to turn our attention to the issue of our ageing society as a subject for public engagement. Last month I took part in an open space event on the implications of our ever-lengthening lives (Extending life at both Ends, a Health Challenge Event hosted by Edinburgh Napier University). This event brought home to me the urgency for more public engagement around the tricky policy issues relating to an ageing society.

As most of us are aware, the UK and western world is getting proportionally older. Health, care and welfare services will be a necessity for more of us and for a longer time period.  The increased cost associated with ageing coupled with a reduced ratio of younger to older members of the population means that governments have to navigate a thorny path of difficult trade-offs and compromises. It is vital that citizens are engaged with from the outset in to ensure there is general awareness of the issues and consensus for the decisions. In order for us to make a meaningful contribution and fully understand the implications of our extended lives we need to be engaged in the debate today, we should really have been engaged yesterday.

At this open space event I initiated two sessions around the role of public engagement in dealing with these issues. Delegates in my groups came from a wide variety of perspectives, from government, third sector, interested members of the public and academics.  A key theme to come out of the conversations was the need for the public conversation to almost start at “square one”. They stressed the necessity to engage with people from the outset in a discussion around our changing ideals. They also spoke about the need for building consensus about the standard of care we should expect for the price the state is willing/able to pay, and need for dialogue about what individual and collective responsibilities should look like.

The people I spoke to felt that before spending and policy decisions are made we all need to be involved in a discussion about our modern day values, the value we place on state care as opposed to care in the home, the value we place on our working lives and our retirement, and the value of having friends, neighbours and community links that can support us when the state cannot. Delegates also discussed the need to talk about responsibility, in terms of ageing, what should be the responsibility of the state, our families, our surrounding community, or indeed what planning for our older age should be made by our younger selves?

Delegates also told me that a whole conversation needs to be had about our perception and value of ageing itself. Such discussions should aim to result in an improved consciousness about ageing as part of the life cycle, and to move away from seeing older people as dependents. We need policy makers, citizens and interest groups to come together to discuss our changing notions of “old”.

Involve are working on facilitating conversations around these issues and attempting to engage citizens in the negotiation of complex policy decisions relating to the ageing society. For example, we worked with the states of Jersey, whose population is older than that of the mainland. In Jersey we ran participatory workshops, an online survey and a written consultation on how we might tackle issues associated with an ageing population. These activities supported a discussion around compromises and encouraged participants to consider the options as part of the wider whole and recognise the tradeoffs involved. Having communicated the challenges and opportunities to a large proportion of the population, the engagement resulted in a changed political climate from which the States of Jersey could begin to make policy decisions. It gave the government a much clearer understanding of which options the public would support, which they would accept, and which they would oppose.

Emily Fennell

2 Responses to “We’re all living longer. So let’s talk about it.”

  1. Suzanne Atkinson
    February 13, 2011 at 2:48 pm

    We’re all living longer? Sorry not my generation! Last year at the age of 49 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Now some 8 months later after chemo and radio therapy I’m preparing to return to work. My prognosis? A 50% chance of re-occurance, the most critical time being the first 2 years. Quite something to get your head around and I’m constantly reminded of the WW2 slogan ‘Stay calm and carry on’. Believe me my new state pensionable age of 67 seems a long way off, if not an impossible dream. My friends of similar age haven’t faired much better. Two have died, two have lost their husbands to cancer, one has been diagnosed as diabetic and of suffering from mini strokes. Two weeks ago my ex sister in law (47) suffered a major stroke. So what’s going on? Well none of us had the 7 year break to bring up the children that our mothers had. And rather than returning to work in a part time capacity we have worked full time for some 30 plus years. Yes, we bought into the 80’s myth but have found ‘Having it all’ is in fact ‘Doing it all’. We all agree that Jobs or the demands made on us in the workplace have increased, making work increasingly stressful. No semi-retirement for us we have children to support through university. Those friends who have escaped serious illness are struggling with menopause. In short we’re knackered and are both despairing and angry at the increasing advanced retirement age, which many of us are unlikely to reach.

    • February 25, 2011 at 2:49 pm

      Hello Suzanne,

      Thanks for your comment. Normally the author of the blog would have responded but Emily has left Involve so I’m doing so in her place. We’ve been thinking a lot about the ageing society lately and its always good to have people challenge our thinking. You’re right that not everyone is living longer today. Through the somewhat provocative title we wanted to draw attention to the fact that the increased average life span is mostly presented as a problem in the press. We’d rather look at the increased average life expectancy as a combined opportunity and challenge which needs to be met with a full discussion amongst citizens.

      One thing I liked about your comment was that you stressed the importance of looking at the quality of life; you suggested that we’ve lost out as a result of stress and increased pressures placed on us and I’d say you might be on to something there.

      I’m sorry to hear about the cancer and I hope you recover fully.


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