Centre for Ageing Better
1 Oct 2019
Our Communications Officer, Niall Ryan, offers a personal perspective on what stops him from worrying about getting older.
We live in distressing times – increasing inequalities, pressure on health and social care, political instability. Not to mention, the ever-increasing size of my Netflix watch list.
To add to these woes, we must deal with the constant passage of time. And, for many people, there’s a fear that getting older means an inevitable decline – a time of poor health, loneliness and the inability to do the things we like.
The thing is, working in this job, I’ve learned that with age comes wisdom. Although that may not seem a fair trade to everyone, it doesn’t necessarily have to be something to worry about.
This year, aged 33, I got my first grey hairs. I took it well and did what any sane and logical person would do: immediately launch a crime scene investigation. What followed was several minutes of fear, doubt, disbelief and finally acceptance – I’m getting older, and all the turbo-boosting face creams in the world won’t make any difference.
However, I need not despair. In the recent English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA), data from a representative sample of the English population aged 50 and over, 60% of people say they have found growing older a very or mainly positive experience with just 7% of participants describing it as a very or mainly negative experience. So it’s not inevitable that I’ll become depressed as I get older.
The continuing media narrative persuades us that later life is a time of loneliness and isolation, one where we may even be living on the moon, praying for death or a nice pair of bluetooth headphones, whichever comes first (thanks John Lewis).
Back on planet Earth, ONS data shows that the age groups who are most likely to feel lonely are 16-24 and 25-34 year olds. Despite this, 41% of people aged 50 and over in the latest wave of ELSA said that they expect to get lonelier as they get older. This suggests that the narrative of the lonely older person has become widely accepted, even by older people themselves.
I know that if I stay physically active and involved in my community, I can improve the quality of my later life and avoid becoming lonely.
Many of the negative aspects of ageing come from people’s experience of being prevented from doing the things they want to do because of their age
The future version of myself I imagined in childhood is amazing – happy, healthy, serene. If you merged Rocky Balboa and He-Man, you still wouldn’t be close. Reality of course has led to a more grounded and realistic expectation of what the future may bring.
Many of the negative aspects of ageing come from people’s experience of being prevented from doing the things they want to do because of their age. But it doesn’t need to be this way.
Evidence shows that planning can enable people to consider the importance of social connections and good health in later life, and to take appropriate steps to maintain both as they age. If I effectively prepare by saving for my pension and ensuring I live in a suitable, accessible home, there is no reason I cannot continue doing the things I like.
I don’t mean to downplay genuine concerns that exist around ageing. We need to take practical steps, like adapting our homes and communities and addressing ageist attitudes to ensure nobody is excluded from participating in society in later life.
At times these challenges seem as worrying as any we face, on par with the notion that I’ll have to carry a cup everywhere I go for the rest of my life to purchase a hot beverage guilt free. However, since joining Ageing Better earlier this year I have renewed hope, having seen the hard work and dedication this organisation, and others, are doing to ensure those at risk do not miss out.