A good reason to get older

Picasso's Mousquetaire a la pipe

Mousquetaire a la pipe, oil on canvas, by Pablo Picasso, painted when he was a week shy of his 87th birthday

There was a fascinating story in the LA Times recently about an artists’ community which convinced me that I now know how I want to live as I get older.

Burbank Senior Artists’ Colony is a five-storey building in Los Angeles, offering one-bedroom apartments for rent to people aged over 55. The building also houses a digital film editing lab, galleries, an outdoor performance area, and art and sculpture studios.

Retired dental surgeon Gene Schklair, 80, sells the sculptures he makes at the Colony for up to $18,000 each. Suzanne Knode, another resident, took her first screenwriting course there in her early 60s. Her film about an elderly woman who robs a convenience store while balancing on her walker was cast and made by fellow residents. It has since made it onto the film festival circuit.

America has already seen a trend for senior housing communities on college campuses, offering residents and students the benefits of intergenerational contact and, increasingly, learning programmes for residents to study something new or take a further degree – as, for example, at Lasell Village.

Developments of this kind have been encouraged by a growing understanding of the benefits to health and happiness of learning new skills as you age (although this can make learning sound a bit like eating bran, good for you but not very pleasant). Art, too, requires study, to develop technique; it also offers a way to scrutinise and understand the world and a mode of self-expression; it is ageless, in all senses of the word.

In this country, there is a growing interest in art produced by older people, not just as therapy, but as mind-expanding pleasure for artists and audience. The idea that you could be creative at all hours of the day and night makes ageing something actively to aspire to. In California, two more Colony communities are in development. Let’s hope some enterprising developer sets up something similar in Britain soon.

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The spanners are coming

Mary Byrne

The delightful Mary Byrne - but not everyone wants a job at Tesco

You’re made redundant or you retire in your 50s or 60s. You’re fit, smart, experienced, and still interested in working. Where on earth do you go to find a job?

The Americans have coined the expression ‘the Wal-Mart years,’ in recognition of the many people aged from 55 to 75 who take low paid, menial jobs in supermarkets. Perhaps they’d prefer to be doing something else but, unable to stop work financially or unwilling to give up the social benefits that come with it, this seems to be the best work on offer. Suppose, though, you’ve been managing for most of your career. Suppose you’re an expert in IT, or design, or finance and think you have something useful to contribute, perhaps to a nonprofit organisation or in a socially useful sector. Where on earth do you go to find a job?

Retirement Reinvented is a UK website intended to be a kind of Craigslist for jobs, paid and unpaid, of particular interest to the over-50s in a specific geographical area. The idea, according to one of its founders, Graham Ross Russell, is to encourage recruitment companies to use it as a resource, and to reach individuals a couple of years before or after they retire. At a time when large numbers of people – doubtless many of them older – are expecting to lose public sector jobs, the idea seems timely. Last week’s Equality and Human Rights Commission report, How Fair Is Britain? made the point that for the over 55s, Britain is often extremely unfair, not least because they are often unwillingly unemployed.

The Canadians are experimenting with a similar website, Thirdquarter, a two-year pilot project funded by four Canadian provincial Chambers of Commerce. The site hints at ambitions to be more than a clearing house, offering to advise individuals in assessing and presenting their experience, and companies and volunteer organisations on how to develop by making use of mature talent.

Clearly, there is an urgent need for new social institutions to help people find their way into a new stage of life. In the United States, a pilot programme from Civic Ventures, Encore Fellowships, has recently been backed by the government. Under the scheme, 10 corporate executives left their jobs in the private sector to spend six months or a year working with nonprofit organisations. Half of their $25,000 stipend was paid by their former employer, half by the nonprofit. The government has now made provision initially for 10 Encore Fellows in each state, with the public sector paying half the salary. One of the Encore Fellows calls himself and his colleagues ‘spanners,’ because they show that it’s possible to span the gap between retirement and old age.

Caroline Waters

Caroline Waters of BT

In this country, some employers are taking the agebomb seriously; at BT, for example, director of people and policy Caroline Waters explains that employees are urged to think start thinking flexibly about the possibilities for their life course as soon as they join the company. There is a deliberate effort not to see careers as linear, but as periods of work interspersed with non-work, which may come about for all sorts of reasons from parental responsibilities to voluntary work to studying for a degree. Waters would like to see a move away from the notion of a pension to a fund for life, which could be dipped into for career breaks at any age.

Cuts mean that Britain faces rising unemployment, which some will doubtless aim to disguise as early retirement. In truth, most people in their 50s and 60s are in no great hurry to stop working. The popularity and charm of the X Factor’s Mary Byrne notwithstanding, nor do they necessarily want to be on the tills as Tesco’s. At least two of the sectors which are attractive to older people – education and healthcare – are relatively recession-proof, and, if the government has any sense, green jobs will be too. It is clear that new institutions and resources are needed to help people make a transition into a new stage of life and work – to become spanners – and that they are needed pretty urgently.

Life: slide or roundabout?

roundaboutSomething enormous is happening. Two enormous things, in fact, and in time they may find a way to work together. That was the conclusion of this afternoon, which I spent in a very interesting discussion with people in cities all over the world, thanks (again) to Cisco.

One of the enormous things is demographic shift; the other is technology. Often they seem at odds (we hear that old people aren’t interested in computers, and that, anyway, technology is no substitute for face-to-contact). But they are not, in reality, opposite trends; together, they could transform our sense of who we are, change our understanding of what it means to live a long and rewarding life.

Thanks to Cisco’s telepresence technology, participants from Toronto, Washington, Almere, London, Geneva, Manchester and Brussels talked about ageing for 90 minutes without having to go anywhere much. (I got a bus.) And very interesting it was too – especially the point made by John Beard of the World Health Organisation, that we think in a thoroughly anachronistic way about the shape of human lives: youth and education, then work, then retirement. We imagine a life rather as a kind of slide, which you climb to the top (actually, this is my metaphor, but I think I’m representing him fairly) and then slither down through physical and mental and financial decline to death.

In fact, it would make much more sense to think of life as a series of roundabouts, which you could jump on and off at different points, dropping in and out of paid work to have children, write a book, volunteer, look after elderly parents, do a postgraduate degree, learn something new.

We need, in other words, to rethink life to account for the fact that people are living much longer and, on the whole, more healthily. This would doubtless help us make sense of the dead years, Marc Freedman’s ‘identity void’ between 55 and 80 when people aren’t really sure what they’re for.

It would also make far more sense for women. Annemarie Jorritsma, the mayor of Almere in the Netherlands, said she couldn’t believe that women are still expected to have children and forge their careers at the very same time. The only reason for this, when it is perfectly possible to work effectively into your seventies, is that it happens to suit thirtysomething men. Anne Marie says she never imagined she get to the age of 60 and this ridiculous paradox still be the case.

We have to hope that, somehow, economic necessity will help us to start thinking in terms of roundabouts , because it’s pretty clear we’d be a lot better off if we could all get off the unproductive and soul-destroying slides.

France vs America: who’s got it right about retirement?

Sartre and de Beauvoir

The French way of life? Sartre and de Beauvoir

Watching the street protests against raising the retirement age in France this week, I’ve felt oddly torn. All those students and workers look so glamorous in their intensity, so stylishly 1968-and-manning-the-barricades.

As doomsayers in Britain increasingly predict wars between the generations, it’s hard to imagine young people here standing up for their elders in the way of the young Frenchman on the news who claimed to be marching for the right of older people to do nothing: ‘There is a time when you work,’ he explained, ‘and a time when you rest.’ The British fantasy of French culture – food, wine, sex, a bit of philosophy and literature – does of course make the idea of French ‘rest’ seem extremely enticing.

Perhaps, I started to think, all those books coming out of the United States about an emerging stage of life between 50 and 80 – of new kinds of work, wisdom, productivity and spiritual and emotional reward – derive from a peculiarly American way of looking at the world, in which work is the ultimate good? Perhaps the attempt to construct a new life phase, of what we might call ‘wise work’, derives from a puritan work ethic/capitalist misapprehension that identity only really comes from employment?

In America, and, latterly, Britain, there is a developing narrative of the old as ‘greedy geezers’, unaffordable with their massive health and pension bills, needing to get back to work – except of course that they’re obsolete, opinionated, inflexible and haven’t got a clue about anything that’s going on.

This unattractive generational prejudice stems in part from an odd assumption that work is our highest calling. Not being able to put down your BlackBerry is a badge of pride; an empty diary is near-death. Older people can only have validity if they find a new way of being busy.

Unfortunately for the French, their alternative social contract looks increasingly rigid and unsustainable. You can’t have a thriving global economy in which lots of perfectly competent people do nothing except buy cheese and discuss existentialism simply because they happen to have reached a particular age.

In the end, of course, everyone is a little bit right: the French in acknowledging that work as currently organised is often rather thin and mean and reductive and anti-culture; and the Americans in looking for work at a later stage of life that would be none of these things, but would bring a deeper satisfaction and sense of contribution to the future. Their great insight is that longevity isn’t simply a matter of years tacked on at the end, but means that we are becoming a different kind of human than any that has existed before, with a need for a different rhythm of life and a new sense of life stages.

Having been writing about older people for a while now, it seems to me that quite often the best way to think about the ageing population is not to think about it at all. We want people to work longer? Then we need to think about work throughout the life course. People only want to stop work if what they do is demeaning, exhausting and undermining. There’s no inherent reason why it should be. Why not aim for rewarding and satisfying and creative work for everyone, with time off when it makes sense, rather than all at the end? Now that would be something worth taking to the streets for.

The comfort of strangers

Neil Bell and Gillian Chardet

Neil Bell and Gillian Chardet

Gillian had a house; Neil needed somewhere to live. Gillian was worried about being alone and the responsibility of keeping things working; Neil was largely retired, and could fix leaking taps.

Gillian is 88, Neil 61, and they found each other through Homeshare, one of several local authority experiments to see whether people with space to spare might benefit from having someone living with them, not as a paying lodger but as a helping one. Today the pair of them share Gillian’s beautiful red-brick converted barn in a West Sussex village, with its beamed sitting room and fruit trees in the garden. No money changes hands, but Neil drives Gillian to doctor’s appointments and the supermarket and provides practical help around the house. He is a reassuring and useful presence, both physically and psychologically.

‘We both put our names forward for Homeshare and, after vetting, it was decided we might be a good match,’ Gillian says. ‘We met first in a neutral place, at the house of old friends of mine, then we had a couple of meals out. We haven’t got a terrific lot of things in common, but perhaps that’s why we get on. I think I get more out of it than Neil does. I’m very difficult to share a kitchen with, but Neil’s fitted in with my funny arrangements. I know I couldn’t possibly live with at least half of my friends. It’s all down to him that we get on.’

It can be hard enough living with people you know well, even those you love. Homes are filled with emotion and vulnerability and assertions of identity. But this arrangement evidently works, perhaps because Neil travels light. Gillian’s home remains filled with her stuff; he has his own room, including a toilet and washbasin.

‘I think if I had to share Gillian’s bathroom – to move in my shaving stuff and toothbrush – that might be difficult,’ he says. ‘I get up first and make porridge but other than that we don’t eat the same food. I’m coeliac and have to eat funny food and I wouldn’t inflict that on anyone.’ They do, however, usually sit down to eat together.

Neil is a former builder, traveller and shiatsu practitioner. He meditates for an hour each morning; perhaps his spirituality helps him keep the distance that Gillian needs to go on being herself in her own home.

Homeshare looks in theory like an excellent solution to two dovetailing problems: older or disabled people who don’t want to live alone, and others, probably younger, without much money or anywhere to live, who are willing to offer practical help in exchange for a roof over their heads. Similar schemes operate in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain and the USA. The attractions of cross-border homesharing for young travellers or students are obvious and, internationally, Homeshare is much more popular than it is here.

The three local authorities that have experimented with homesharing in Britain have found, however, that marketing and running the schemes is expensive. Applicants must be interviewed and vetted and undergo police checks; they must meet each other and negotiate their likes and dislikes and be monitored fairly intensively for the first month and occasionally thereafter. West Sussex, which brought Gillian and Neil together, was funding a worker to manage the scheme but is now outsourcing the coordination of those homeshares for which it remains responsible and not pursuing any more.

Keith Hipwood is Gillian and Neil’s Homeshare coordinator, his work partly paid for by West Sussex, and partly by NAAPS, the charity that supports small, community based care schemes.  ‘When Homeshare works, it works brilliantly,’ Keith says. ‘But when I took over the West Sussex scheme they had only four matches, following three years’ work. There was a waiting list of 40 people, but West Sussex is a big county and the householders were in the wrong place or not the right matches. Homeshare tends not to become a priority for social services because the process is too lengthy to stop someone going into a home after a crisis; it’s difficult to demonstrate its usefulness in that sense.’

Keith’s view is that Homeshare works best in a clearly defined locality or in dense urban settings. It is perhaps no coincidence that of the three local authorities that have experimented with it – West Sussex, Wiltshire and Oxford – the latter has had most success: it is the most urban, a place where property is expensive, and has a large student population.

Some privately-run Homeshare schemes exist, and perhaps they offer a more promising business model. They usually require a monthly payment from both householder and homesharer; if the schemes can generate enough volume, a coordinator’s salary becomes viable. In London and other urban centres, homesharing has been particularly attractive to foreign nationals, who are happy to undertake work around the house in exchange for somewhere to stay, perhaps even in a rather expensive part of town. NAAPS’ immediate ambition, having recently over the coordination of Homeshare in Britain, is to network the various fragmented London schemes and demonstrate that in the right setting, marketed less as a solution for social services than as an affordable housing choice, it can really work.

Neil and Gillian have been together for two years, long for a homeshare. (Many are fixed-term contracts of six months or a year.) Gillian hopes their arrangement will last forever, but they both recognise that if she develops personal care needs, that will be the end of it, because that’s not what homesharing is about. ‘He didn’t come here to look after me,’ Gillian says, ‘and anyway I’d be absolutely hopeless at being looked after by anybody.’

Being a homesharer does impose constraints on Neil – he tends not to stay out with his partner overnight, and she doesn’t stay in his room because he feels that would unbalance the household. ‘I’ve had friends over to supper and once or twice someone has stayed over, but I don’t treat the house exactly as I would if it were my own,’ Neil says. ‘I became a bit of a nomad after I stopped working, and I suppose that has made me quite flexible.’

‘I don’t mind if Neil has people here,’ Gillian says. ‘I can talk to most people, and his friends always seem very compatible. He’s got his interests and beliefs and I like hearing about them. It’s been marvellous. He’s got his life outside and he comes and goes, but I’m always happier when he’s here.’

Choirs go global

The Young At Heart choir from Almere

The Young At Heart choir from Almere

This week I attended an extraordinary international singalong in which two choirs of older people, one in Melbourne, the other in Amsterdam, sang to each other as if they were in the same room. I was in London, and I felt I was there (wherever ‘there’ was) too.

The event was made possible by video technology that has been designed for international business meetings. Sitting round a semicircular table, facing wraparound screens, we experienced the presence of the other participants as if they were on the other side of a round table.

The whole thing came about after a meeting between Kevin Johnson of Cisco and Pamela Bruder of the Emmy Monash Aged Care home in Melbourne. Pamela’s work demonstrates the role music can play in bridging generations and in enabling people with different levels of need for care to mix as equals. Cisco is nearing the end of a 6-month experiment in the town of Almere, in the Netherlands, to see whether video technology can extend the participation of older people. Using video conferencing and Flip cameras, people who wouldn’t be able to get across the city can, for example, now take an exercise class. Or indeed, join the Young At Heart Choir, which rehearses in two places at once.

Pamela Bruder, centre, with residents of Emmy Monash and helpers

Pamela Bruder, centre, with residents of Emmy Monash and helpers

The singers from Emmy Monash – one of whom lives in the high care unit, two in the dementia-specific wing, while two more are registered blind (you couldn’t tell who was which) – sang haunting Hebrew songs with some of the school students who rehearse with them. The Almere choir sang pop medleys, including The Twist because, in the words of their charismatic choirmaster, Gerard Poot,  ‘a lot of people here have new hips.’ Kevin and I also sang along, where we knew the words. He has rather a good voice. I don’t. Poot said he had been conducting for 30 years, and ‘I have never experienced anything like this. It’s really great, a once in a lifetime experience.’

The curious thing about the morning was that it was both mundane and exhilarating. At one level it was just a group of people singing together; at another, the accents kept reminding you that half of them were on the other side of the world. It did push the technology to its limits – ‘This is more people than I’ve ever seen in a TelePresence room’ Kevin acknowledged, and there may be a reason for that: the technology is set up for discussion rather than performance. But it was a powerful experience all the same, and everyone wanted to do it again.

‘One of our ladies who lives in the dementia wing, to my surprise, mentioned it the next day,’ Pamela reported afterwards. ‘She was describing it to one of our nurses, saying how beautiful it was, and how the people in Amsterdam seemed so close, she felt that she could reach out and touch them.’Young At Heart moving in rhythm

Inventing a new phase of life

Marc Freedman

Marc Freedman

It was a huge treat to meet Marc Freedman this week when he was in London. At Agebomb’s event at NESTA, he talked about the paradox that longer lives – which are obviously a good thing – are also widely seen as a social disaster. In the US, as well as here, there are plenty of people ready to warn of impending conflict between the generations.

Marc described how his involvement with mentoring programmes started him thinking about the contributions that people over the age of 55 are capable of making. This has led him to spearhead a movement in the United States for Encore careers – demanding work in the public good in the second half of life. He suggested we need to invent a new phase of life to acknowledge that this is happening, much as adolescence was invented in the early twentieth century.

Funnily enough, the man who popularised the notion of adolescence, G. Stanley Hall, decided in the last years of his life that he should have focused instead on a different phase: when people have finished bringing up kids but aren’t anywhere near ready to die, the very stage we now need acknowledged and catered for.

So what should we call them, these people who face 10, 20, 30 more years of active life, yet who aren’t the young executives and midlife parents who form our presiding image of adulthood? Could we think of something active and aspirational; something that makes sense of what Marc called the ‘windfall of talent’ they represent?

G. Stanley Hall thought the phase should be called senescence, but that’s out now because it’s attracted too many connotations of decline. What’s needed is something that suggests potential.

Marc describes people in this phase – whatever we’re going to call it – as existing in an ‘identity void.’ They’re not taken seriously by the media, nor by the world of work. It’s not always easy for them to achieve the kinds of things they want to. Yet they have distinctive talents and aspirations. In his view, these come from a combination of their sense of mortality – that there’s only a limited time left to achieve; their recognition that it is nevertheless enough time to do something significant; and their consciousness that we are what survives of us – a kind of future-mindedness.

This collision of different senses of time, he argues, leads to an urgency to achieve, a new phase of innovation. People in this period of life have a distinctive purpose. Of course, stages of life are man-made (a friend of mine who works with Afghan refugees tells me Afghans have little sense of age and don’t celebrate birthdays). But this would be a useful invention at this point, because it would pave the way for and legitimise institutions to go with it – internships in socially useful occupations, for example, and MBAs targeted at the over 55s.

In the United States, the Purpose Prize, which Marc founded to recognise entrepreneurs over the age of 60 who are doing something for the public good, attracts 1500 applications a year. For many people in the first half of the twentieth century, this life stage is not about freedom from work, but freedom to work. These people are already here and they want work that is meaningful, rewarding, and has an eye on the long term. We really should find a way to recognise them.