In praise of aimless learning

booksI dreaded retiring from work in 1992. I felt there would be no structure to my week. Fine for a holiday, but I worried about waking on a Monday morning every day of the year wondering, “what can I do this week?”

Being retired can be a burden. There is too often a feeling of being left behind and purposeless and, if you live alone, you can very easily start to feel isolated.

I did two things that turned out to be very important. I started going to short weekend courses at an adult education college, and I joined the University of the Third Age, U3A.

Despite all the talk about lifelong learning, adult education has gone out of fashion in recent years. The premises leased to my adult education college were closed by the council so they could be sold for housing. The older people for whom the college was so important have fought to keep it going, with rather fewer courses which we hold at a local hotel but it’s not the same as having a residential centre.

Of course, I’m not against education for productivity and global competitiveness, but learning has other aspects. They are perhaps harder to measure, but they are invaluable to individuals and, I would argue, helpful to society at large. There is some evidence that mental activity helps to postpone dementia. There is a lot of evidence that social activity helps people to age happily and more healthily. Learning, especially with other people, can help prevent depression and isolation and boost confidence and energy.

Fortunately, the U3A continues to thrive and there is an enormous range of subjects on offer. It took some initial courage to turn up, but I found that it was easy to join in a conversation that wasn’t about the personal circumstances of the people present but on a subject of general interest. Gradually you realise that the fellow members of your group have become friends.

I joined a fortnightly walking group, nothing too strenuous, plus a French class and a book group, where it was easy to discuss thoughts and ideas. I was surprised how quickly barriers broke down as you looked forward to hearing others’ views.

There are 760 U3As in the country, all self-help organizations supporting learning for pleasure. The aim is not to get qualifications, or achieve certain levels of learning. But in that relaxed approach lies their success and usefulness. The U3A has allowed me to feel part of the world again. Multiply my experience by the hundreds of thousands of people who are involved in U3As every week, and you have a lot less ill-health, decline and sadness.


The relentless stress and the joy of being a carer, by the wife of a diplomat

Donna Thomson

Donna Thomson

Donna Thomson is the wife of the Canadian High Commissioner in London and the mother of a son profoundly disabled with cerebral palsy. The Four Walls of my Freedom, the book she has written about the experience of being his carer, is both an account of looking after a child in pain and a meditation on what it means to lead a good life. Thomson has avoided writing either a misery memoir or a book that would speak only to the disability community; this is a book that has something to tell us all.

I happen to have met Thomson, and she is everything you would expect of a high-ranking diplomat’s wife: poised, elegant, attractive, charming. She is also full of fun, fairly bursting with life and excitement and enthusiasm. She is not careworn or cast down – and yet, reading her book, it is hard to square the woman you see with the one who has had to put up with so much; hard to see how she has avoided being overwhelmed.

Nicholas at the age of one with his father

Nicholas at the age of one with his father

She is rather slow to describe the extent of Nicholas’s disabilities in the book, perhaps because Nicholas himself doesn’t really recognise himself as disabled. He has, though, spent his life in a wheelchair and is now, at the age of 21, largely confined to bed. He has very limited use of his limbs and is partially blind. He is reliant on technology to breathe, sleep and speak, and is fed by a tube into his stomach, using an electric pump.

He has endured great pain – Thomson describes periods of life when she or her husband had to get up every 45 minutes through the night to reposition him – and has nearly died several times. He needs someone with him all night, because he can stop breathing when he falls asleep.

When his condition was diagnosed, at the age of three months, Thomson describes feeling determined. She’d known there was something wrong: he’d cried all the time, and twisted his body into distracted shapes and failed to suck. Now she knew what she had to do; she would be the best mother she possibly could, give him the best life he could possibly have.

It was a life derailed, though, as she admits; not the one she had planned for herself or for him. And it has been a slog. ‘Like anyone who has tried to protect the integrity of a loved one with a nasty chronic condition, my life with Nicholas has been infused by a desperate love,’ she writes. This is extreme mothering, and it has made her think hard about the value of Nicholas’s life, and what freedom has been left to her as a carer.

Thomson has come to understand Nicholas’s life through of the writing of the philosopher Amartya Sen, who has argued that true poverty isn’t to do with money so much as a denial of capabilities. What matters for Nicholas is to lead a life that is full, interesting and exciting in his terms, and what has mattered for her is to be able to help him do that. Today he buys and sells on eBay, watches sport on television, plays games on the computer and has rich interraction with his carers and friends.

She has never, she says, met a parent of a disabled child who saw their child as tragic; such children are adored for being their essential selves. She reflects that the ability to think and reason has been considered by some to be the foundation of human dignity; for her, human dignity has more to do with the ability to inspire and receive love and care.

Nicholas has also forced her to consider the obligations of the state to carers: is it right that some people should be forced into conditions that amount to slavery? How is the state to reward and recognise the contribution to society that they make? Why is the public value of caring so low when to do it well calls for exhausting levels of alertness and emotional responsiveness?

This is a thought-provoking and powerful book. Its themes – of the value of the individual who does not and will never ‘contribute’ in conventional terms, of the exploitation by society at large of the caring ‘work-that-is-not-work’ to keep down budgets, and of the need to include the less able in community life in a way that doesn’t bankrupt or exhaust families – are central to an ageing society.

‘Now that Nicholas has survived to the ripe old age of twenty-one,’ Thomson writes, ‘we look for belonging in small spaces – Nicholas’s bedroom will do fine.’ In a world in which we are consistently encouraged to assert ourselves, it is this ability of Thomson and her family to find meaning and happiness that is inspiring and impressive.

Thomson’s motivation in writing the book was to raise questions about what we owe to those whose options are restricted and those who care for them. I am sure that having had a privileged existence, in a beautiful house, with enough money, has helped enormously. Nicholas has been lucky enough to live in Canada and Britain, where there is help from the state; his parents are fortunate to have been able to take out savings plans for his future and to be able to plug any gaps. Yet the feeling you are left with at the end of the book is amazement that Thomson has retained not only her identity, but a personality that is bursting with life and enthusiasm.

‘It is a strange paradox,’ Thomson reflects, ‘that in order to be free, the mother of a child with severe disabilities in our society has to relinquish the choosing self. I can remember thinking more than once, Okay, I give up. I give up imagining that I have a life. I am a servant, not a master. I will be still. I will watch and wait for Nicholas’s next crisis.’ In a society in which caring is so often a lonely, isolating and traumatic calling, Thomson is proof that it doesn’t have to be soul-destroying. But the questions she raises about how we could arrange things better make demands of all of us.

Four Walls Of My Freedom book jacket

I have interviewed Donna Thomson for The Times: you can read the article here.

The Four Walls of my Freedom is published on September 1 by McArthur and Co.

Rock’n’roll to age by

Scissor sisters

Scissor Sisters

When I was young, one night a week my father would tuck himself away in our recently built, paper-thin extension, and listen to an hour of big band music to recapture his youth. I was told not to interrupt his reverie. That was the music he liked as he got old, music that made him feel young. What will be your playlist for old age?

Well, over at the Guardian’s music blog they run a competition every week for readers to nominate songs for a playlist around a theme. Last week the theme was growing old. It produced a fine crop of melancholic songs about going grey.

Of course, when rock and roll first started to make popular culture it was haunted by early death as a marker of the live-fast die-young generation.  Now, hard-working, ageing rock and rollers are leading the way in showing that you can grow old and stay young at the same time. No industry is more determined to defy death than rock.

Yet most of the songs on the Guardian don’t reflect modern reality but instead a mawkish, sad, fearful account of growing old as loss and disappointment, from Pete Hamill’s Autumn, which is about what happens when your children leave home, to 10cc’s Old Wild Men which wonders what happens when yesterday’s firebrands become today’s has-beens.

Randy Newman’s Mikey’s is about old age as an extended opportunity for bitterness and bigotry. The main antidote to bitterness is either nostalgia, in the form of Gladys Knight’s The Way We Were, or rage against the dying of the light, as with Neil Young’s Old Man. The moving Warren Zevon song, Play It All Night Long, with the repeating line ‘keep me in your heart for a while’ didn’t make it onto the list, and neither did Elvis Costello’s Veronica who is so old she’s not even sure her name is Veronica. Clive Dunn’s Grandad, recorded when he was just 50, made the B-list. See the Top of the Pops clip.

The thought of growing old depressed everyone at the Guardian so much the next week they had to cheer themselves up by compiling a song list about euphoria.

Early entries included Katrina & The Waves’ Walking On Sunshine; Nina Simone’s Feeling Good; Van Morrison’s Joyous Sound; The Monkees’ I’m a Believer and Donna Summer’s I Feel Love.

But surely all those songs can apply to being old?  Indeed, for a generation of oldies determined to have a good time, perhaps helped by mood altering drugs, Feeling Good might be quite appropriate.

Once again, Jarvis Cocker proves he’s the best policy-wonk in rock when he reminds people that social isolation is the enemy of ageing well: ‘One time they were just like you. Drinking, smoking cigs, and sniffin glue. Don’t just put them in a home, can’t have much fun on their own.’ Scissor Sisters take this thought a step further with their recommendation to ‘take your mamma out tonight…get her jacked up on some cheap champagne’ which sounds like a great idea.

But perhaps, as so often, the final word belongs to Abba when they remind us in When All Is Said and Done that the old people are ‘not too old for sex.’

What would be on your playlist to accompany a raucous old age?

Agebomb to hold an event with Nesta in early October

Stop Press!Excellent news: the splendid Marc Freedman will be visiting London from San Francisco for two days in early October and has agreed to be the keynote speaker at an Agebomb event on the new old age, to be held in conjunction with Nesta on the morning of Tuesday October 5.

We will be looking at innovation to make the second half of life a success.

Marc spearheaded the creation of the Experience Corps, which gets older people working with schools and other youth organisations across the United States. He is an eloquent campaigner for Encore Careers – serious, socially useful work for people in the second half of life – and the founder of The Purpose Prize, which awards prizes of $100,000 and $50,000 to social innovators over the age of 55.

His new book, Shift, which will be published in January 2011, is about the transition of the boomer generation to a new stage of life.

Charlie Leadbeater, a leading thinker on social innovation, author of We-Think: The Power of Mass Creativity, and occasional guest blogger on Agebomb, is also a confirmed speaker. Other speakers will be unveiled soon.

Through its Age Unlimited programme, Nesta has done a good deal of work on the demands and ambitions of a different kind of older population, and this is will be an opportunity to think about what the second half of life will hold for a generation with entirely different, but very varied, expectations.

We will be asking: what is the point of retirement? Is there any real choice for people in how they spend the second half of their lives? If not, what would make a difference? Could Encore careers work in the UK? Can you change the second half of life without changing the first?

More news soon.

The precious gift economy of caring vs. box-ticking technocrats

tea timeThe funding of care in England and Wales is a Byzantine structure of mysterious entitlements and clawbacks. The new government has wasted little time (rather like its predecessor in 1997) in announcing an investigation into this morass – and, with its Commission on the Funding of Care and Support due to report next summer, it’s expected that campaigning organisations and think tanks and interested parties will be lobbing in their two penn’orth over the next few months.

The right-leaning think-tank Policy Exchange has been the first off the mark, with a report, Careless, whose headline recommendation is that the National Health Service and social care aren’t actually separate entities and should be amalgamated. The report’s authors, Henry Featherstone and Lilly Whitham, point out that the NHS already devotes 4% of its budget to care and is often the provider of last resort.

Careless reportSocial care consumes 40% of the money that local authorities have at their disposal and cuts are widely seen as inevitable. Featherstone and Whitham object that willy nilly, more care costs will creep into the NHS, where funding is ring-fenced. Their proposal to amalgamate the two services is highly political, because either everything would have to be free at the point of use, or there would be some charging. Predictably enough, they are against free social care funded by general taxation and warn the Commission against considering it, although most experts in the field seem to think that’s effectively been ruled out anyway. Policy Exchange argues that charging for aspects of the combined service would merely extend a principle that already exists in the NHS, where some people pay for prescriptions and cancer drugs.

If you could take out the politics, looking at the scope for amalgamation might be a bright idea. But you can’t. The opposition would rightly deride the idea as a Trojan horse for the dismantling of the NHS. And the coalition has staked its morality on defending a talismanic NHS, exempting it from the general slash and burn; to go back on that would be to lose all credibility.

Featherstone and Whitham’s second controversial proposition is that the anticipated hike in social care budgets may not actually arise. The Department of Health and the Office of National Statistics have taken the view that an ageing population will be an infirm population; that healthy life expectancy – the number of years we spend being fit and well – is decreasing as a proportion of total life expectancy. But the figures are far from clear. Most serious researchers are cautious about the reliability of the evidence and caution that results vary across population groups.

There is highly respectable research suggesting that the length of time spent unwell is not growing, and some equally serious studies showing it is. Policy Exchange’s scepticism is particularly interesting in the light of reports this week of a new superbug, leading to press speculation that we could be heading towards an era without antibiotics when pneumonia may once again become ‘the old man’s friend.’

Policy Exchange claims this lack of clarity means there’s less urgency to reform social care than everyone has assumed, but this is a bit feeble because there are anomalies and inequalities now that would hardly be tolerated in other aspects of government. Besides, as a general principle, there is nothing wrong with planning for the worst.

The care system only gets away with its discrepancies and injustices because it’s something we don’t want to think about. The third really interesting point in the Policy Exchange report (which isn’t new, but bears repeating) is how much ignorance there is about the care system. Many people (48% responding to government research) think care is free, and don’t bother to inquire too closely because no one wants to think about it, in the same way we don’t want to think about death.

Despite a 1997 Royal Commission, two reports from House of Commons Select Committee inquiries, three major reports from the last government and the coalition’s speed in setting up its commission, care doesn’t appear on lists of voters’ concerns.

Unless you happen to be a carer, of course. Carers provide services estimated to be worth £87bn a year. This is not paid work and it’s not exactly volunteering; it’s something much more precious and intangible – you might call it love, or friendship. Over a very long time, governments have exploited the fact that caring comes from somewhere quite different from the technocratic workings of government with its tick-box targets and effectiveness measures. The real conundrum in this debate is how to reward carers.

Successive governments have resisted moves in that direction, for fear that it’s a slippery slope: you could never satisfy their needs. The alternative has been, and remains, to do nothing, which is simply not fair. Amalgamating the NHS and the care service is a slick idea, but it’s a technocratic solution, of appeal mainly to people who are interested in systems. A much bigger and more radical challenge is to find a way of integrating the precious gift economy of caring more closely into society, rather than, as so often, isolating and excluding it.

Playing for grownups

posh handbag ruining the athletic effect

Posh handbag ruining the athletic effect

The first seniors’ playground in London opened three months ago to quite a lot of hoopla and, yesterday, I went along to Hyde Park see how it’s going. The nearby tennis courts were full, a mother and adolescent son were playing mini golf through the rose bushes, there were queues for the table tennis at the Serpentine Pavilion across the road and the next-door café was overflowing, but the seniors’ playground was disappointingly devoid of seniors. Or anyone, in fact, apart from me and my 10 year-old son, who wasn’t technically supposed to be there.

There are lots of positive things to say about the playground. The Danish equipment is beautifully made and simple – not scary like gym machines with their incomprehensible computerised programmes called things like ‘Kilimanjaro’ and their layers of 20 different weights designed to humiliate you. (You mean you never get down to the bottom? Not even half way? A quarter – nope?) The area is as bucolic as it is possible to be in the middle of a world city, surrounded by plants and with the pleasing thwack of tennis balls from the courts nearby. There is, if you are tall enough, probably a view of the Albert Memorial. And it’s free.

On the other hand, the area given over to the playground is rather small. My son and I seemed to take up most of the space, and he’s only half-size. Despite being surrounded by attractive foliage and tucked away in a corner of the park (you have to go through a café to get to it) there is something quite exposing about doing your sit ups in front of a couple of park benches. And the equipment is limited: six very simple devices designed for gentle movement. The cross-trainer, for example, assumes oddly small strides.

There had been an open morning last Friday, one of the women behind the desk told me in between dealing with the constant flow of tennis players, but not many people had come. It would be wrong to judge from a single visit and a stray anecdote, but I was left wondering whether the combination of the small area and the relatively undemanding equipment makes the playground enough of a destination.

tastefully-designed equipment

Tastefully-designed machines

Madeline Elsdon, who had the original idea and lobbied through the Knightsbridge Association for the money (the bulk of which, £40,000, was provided by Westminster Council, with a £10,000 contribution from the park) says I was there at the wrong time. ‘Sometimes you go past and there are five people, and sometimes there’s nobody. We don’t expect it to be full all the time. People still have to find it. The Royal Parks are going to put more signs up. And it’s not quite finished yet. We’re going to have a board: how to use it, which machines benefit which parts of the body.’

My late father-in-law, a very keen sportsman who ran a sports centre, disliked gyms for being self-absorbed and narcissistic and missing the whole point of sport. The great thing about the playground, as Madeline Elsdon points out, is that it isn’t like this at all. ‘If you go to a gym, people are pumping away. If you go to the playground and there’s someone else in there, they’ll talk to you. It’s good fun. It’s even become a bit of a dating area for seniors. There are some rather nice men who go up there.’

This emphasis on pleasure means, as she concedes, that ‘you’re never going to build muscles.’ On the plus side, though, you don’t have that annoying thumpy gym music. And you don’t need to get into Lycra. This is play, not punishing self-improvement.

I’m all in favour of play, of which I think there’s not nearly enough, generally speaking, especially among women, and especially for older people. My only gripe would be with the no under-15s rule, which seems unnecessarily draconian. Madeline points out that children already have five playgrounds in Hyde Park and next-door Kensington Gardens, and says older people won’t use the playground if it’s ‘overrun’ by children, which makes them sound like an infestation. But you could perhaps have a rule similar to those in some children’s playgrounds where grownups are not permitted unless accompanied by a child: no kids without a participating adult.

Madeline says optimistically that with a Freedom Pass, older people can make the trip up from the suburbs, use the exercise machines and have a cup of coffee and ‘it’s a nice day out’. Well, once a year maybe. If, on the other hand, there were seniors’ playgrounds in everyone’s local park (perhaps even with machines spread out among the trees so those who wanted could jog between them, rather than crammed into the smallest possible space) then I’m sure they’d be widely used.

Unfortunately, the money for the Hyde Park playground came from a discretionary fund for extras not covered by Westminster’s core funding. There won’t be much of that sort of thing around for a while. Which is a great pity, because my son and I had a lot of fun yesterday, playing in the sunshine. And we didn’t even meet any of the rather nice men.

illicit child on equipment

Illicit child on equipment

The small society

Dorothy Runnicles

Dorothy Runnicles

I met the redoubtable Dorothy Runnicles at a conference a couple of months ago and have just read the report she published in February this year on voluntary groups run by and for older people. Her findings are encouraging – suggesting that there is far more community involvement than anyone officially knows anything about – but also concerning.

Runnicles is 86 and a campaigner for the greater involvement of older people in decision-making. As a member of Cambridgeshire Older People’s Reference Group, COPRG, an umbrella body for community groups across the county, she was involved in a year-long study of the role that these community groups (some of which are intergenerational) play in older people’s lives.

Her report suggests that untold thousands of local groups are operating under the radar of social services or the Charity Commission. Statutory and non-statutory bodies, she writes, are ‘failing to pick up huge numbers of small, dynamic, informal groups,’ that contribute to the well-being and quality of life of older people.

So the good news is that we aren’t living in an atomised society of competitive individualists in which neighbours are shunned. The not so good news, at least if you are trying to create a big society which works for everyone, is that a great many of these groups are specific to their locality.

One of the key findings of Runnicles’ report was how diverse groups were, reflecting a very wide range of interests. COPRG divided the 260 groups it studied in detail into three: those based around a locality; those linked to a faith group or a church; and those brought together by a shared interest, like caring or Alzheimer’s. The organizations in the first category often began as a spontaneous response to a specific issue, such as cuts in public transport, though their remit may have since grown considerably. They don’t seem, in other words, to be something you can simply pick up and plonk down somewhere else; their vitality derives from their organic, local quality.

Runnicles’ report is called Unsung Heroes in a Changing Climate, and it argues that in a time of increased pressure on public finances, it would pay policy makers to give greater voice to these groups. Ageism and prejudice, it implies, are among the main reasons why no one takes much notice of them. Many community groups are run by people aged 66-86 and over, and many of their members would be regarded as less than fully fit.

Nearly 10 years ago, the New Economics Foundation published a report arguing that there were thousands of what it called ‘micro social enterprises’ in Britain that were ‘unstudied and undervalued.’ Despite all the interest in social capital and user-led services and participation that there has been since – not to mention the current stir about the big society – it seems that, as ever, community groups run by and for older people continue to be seen as marginal.