Ageing and 'the sound of the electricity meter in the stillness…'
I've been looking at ageing now for over four years and rarely do I come across such eloquent summaries of the issues that face us as ageing societies which are fixated with youth and the often 'savourless achievement' of longevity. Jeremy Seabrook's article is at once sharp, incisive and beautifully observes the silences of loneliness:
The impression is one of elderly hedonists – more people in their 60s are getting divorced and starting a new life; line-dancing, gymnastics and dating agencies, going from holiday to holiday; concessions, free passes and cheap tickets. The OAP of yesterday has been transformed into the swinger who refuses to acknowledge ageing. The raising of the retirement age, the re-integration of the "young elderly" into the mainstream of society looks like compassion, as well as economic good sense.
In other words, the high-profile, fun-loving elderly consumer has become the contemporary emblem of old age. This is profoundly reassuring for the rest of us, and it conveniently dissimulates the image of those who live on into their ninth and 10th decade, consigned to the low-watt penumbra of the nursing home, or worse, the invisible "shut-ins", as they are sometimes called, those too timid to go out, who have lost confidence on the uneven pavements and dizzying shopping crowds; those afflicted by the mysterious paranoias of old age, trembling each time the doorbell rings and frightened of the unexpected telephone call; people whose days are marked by boredom and its twin, loneliness; the companionless meal, the ticking clock and the sound of the electricity meter in the stillness, while the winter dark presses against the windows by 4pm, the only company the school photograph of grandchildren with their cheeky smiles and lost milk teeth smiling against the blue background of a painted summer sky.
Seabrook asks some key questions about societal and personal values that shape the way we care for and resource the care and support of our own and others' ageing relatives. Politically, ageing is gaining ground and it getting traction but fiscally tough choices face all parties and agencies charged with service provision. Putting values first will be crucial in shaping support services that we can imagine wanting to use ourselves. My own work in technology enabled support for independent living/ageing tries to be values-based since values (e.g., encouraging not minimizing social participation) like this provide good boundary conditions for any design. Additionally, if the values have been identified as important to older people themselves from first hand research one has chance of gaining acceptance for the invention or intervention in questions.
Incidentally, the UN's enormous (140MB) 2009 report on ageing has just been released.