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If you had three wishes to make your city a better place to grow old...

As London joins the global network of Age Friendly Communities, Jane Scobie reflects on the research she carried out for the Greater London Authority on how to make the Capital more age-friendly

"If you had three wishes to make your city a better place to grow old - what would they be?", asks Jane.

There is still only one image of old - a zimmer frame, invisible and unimportant.

If you had three wishes to make your city a better place to grow old what would they be? The most frequent answer from the broad range of older people I interviewed across London as part of a research project for the Greater London Authority was for "older people to be respected and understood".

My research found that while principles of respect and social inclusion and the idea of citizen-based policy is embraced in theory, the lived experience of older Londoners is the opposite - lack of respect and exclusion.

"Older people are patronised, and when they retire and are unpaid they are not of interest, despite having extensive experience." This typical response highlights how experience is wasted and people are undermined.

Two attendees at an age-friendly communities meeting

A citizen-based policy approach "moves" thinking beyond a medical model of ageing where the older person is seen as a patient and a customer focused model where they are seen as a consumer, and recognises them as a full citizen.

"London is not good at noticing older people as workers and consumers other than as consumers of health services", noted one respondent.

Despite the fact that the paid work of older Londoners contributes an estimated £47bn per year to the capital, 16 per cent of older Londoners provide care to other adults and an estimated 85,000 London families receive childcare from grandparents aged 50 or over.

To shift the focus from delivering services that "look after" older people, to valuing their contribution and supporting their civic rights two things are essential:

  • one, investment in leadership, learning and co-ordination, and
  • two, the creation of a new story around ageing.
Investment in leadership, learning and co-ordination

We must go beyond evidence-based research and support older people who are leading and mobilising others in their community, as well as people with lived experience of ageing, to help make communities age friendly.

Workshops, peer-to-peer learning schemes and information-sharing platforms could transform older people’s role in their future and offer new solutions for the next generation. In the words of one person I interviewed: "We need to build stronger older people’s organisations and a broader older people’s movement."
Currently there are few opportunities to develop leadership or civic skills or to participate in peer-to-peer learning. Each borough has a separate local plan and it is difficult to understand the rights and obligations of the different players and monitor progress. Even London-wide data is difficult to find.

There is no comprehensive mapping of older people’s organisations in London or a knowledge bank where organisations can find out what has already been learnt. Understanding of the information flows between agencies at local, borough and city level is limited.

More and more organisations - working in mental health, environment, arts, heritage and finance - as well as in health and care - are developing programmes to engage older people but concern that there is no co-ordination or central platform for sharing information. 

Creating a new story around ageing

Older community leaders feel that prevailing negative attitudes impact on older people’s agency, reducing their engagement in volunteering and civil activities.

We need new ways to explore diverse experiences of ageing and what kind of lives we want to lead in the future.  The B(Old) Festival held recently at the South Bank is great example, others include intergenerational mentoring schemes within businesses being trialled by Project Xrossroads and older people’s engagement programmes run by KOVE and The Building Exploratory.

There is a need to cultivate understanding between generations but not simply through small community projects, within the family and wider society as well.

A view I heard from speaking to older Londoners was: "Making things better and more age-friendly must directly involve older generations. I go to meetings, I speak out and I write. Older Londoners need to get involved more."

Two men seated on a bench by the Thames
Planning for the future

Principles of respect, social and civic participation are needed to drive age inclusive practice, and change how we as individuals think about ageing but we need practical tools as well.

We need to build resilience to cope with the changes life brings, not just for the current generation of older people but for future generations. Currently people with lived experience of ageing are not part of the conversation. The voices are there, we need to make them heard.

Jane Scobie is a 2017 Clore Social, Older People’s Fellow, and has recently prepared a report for the Greater London Authority #agefriendlylondon - building on older people’s agency.

#agefriendlylondon - building on the power of older people report

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London is joining the WHO Global Network of Age-Friendly Cities

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