The past is not another country

Sarah ReedMaking conversation in a care home is hard work. The commonest opening gambit is probably, ‘What did you have for lunch?’ which is not a question to which the answer is going to be a) very interesting, unless Heston Blumenthal has popped in, or b) readily available to anyone with a cloudy memory, let alone dementia.

Sarah Reed spent 10 years visiting her mother in a care home, hearing visitors making similar, hopeless inquiries. She realized family members and residents needed help relating to each other in a disconcerting new setting and came up with Many Happy Returns, a series of A5 picture cards designed to inspire reminiscence.

The cards feature objects and events related to what Professor David Rubin has called the ‘reminiscence bump’ – a period in life, between the ages of five and around 25, when the most vivid images and persistent memories are laid down.

The first beautifully-produced set of 26 cards shows artefacts and activities from the 1940s – a sewing kit, a ration book, cleaning the front step, evacuation. On the back is a few lines of background, designed to give younger people a way into the subject, and  some conversational prompts: ‘Who cut and styled your hair? Whose hair did you admire?’

A set from the 1950s has followed, which seem richer, perhaps because life had got richer, perhaps because the pointers to discussion are a bit more tangential – so, for example, a box of Television Selection biscuits might prompt a conversation about how early TV sets were often covered with lace cloths, or about favourite programmes.

Long-term memory is more persistent than short-term; older people have been described as entering the vale of anecdote. The cards leave plenty of room for that but also offer the possibility of triggering different stories, of refreshing conversations and drawing families closer. There are benefits for younger people too, in hearing about social history from those who were there.

Sarah Reed is persuasive about the importance of reminiscence in maintaining identity in care homes, where it can so easily be eroded. She is adamant that no one should go into a care home without an autobiographical album of their life story, complete with first-person captions, to enable staff to link the individual back to the person they were before, to approach them as a whole person, not simply a ‘resident’. She runs workshops for care home staff in engaging with older people in ways that maintain their dignity and create real relationships – and also writes a very good blog here.

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Older people want to shop shock

shopping trolleyIt is a paradox that older people make up a large and growing number of consumers – presenting a tremendous opportunity – yet they are almost entirely ignored by marketing executives. Over-50s need and want to buy stuff like anyone else, but some 90% of marketing spend is directed at younger people.

A report out today from the International Longevity Centre (ILC), published by Age UK, attempts to tease out some of the reasons behind this. These turn out to be a complex nexus of ignorance, prejudice, myopia (metaphorical as well as literal) and ineptitude. What’s more, according to the report’s author David Sinclair, many of the market barriers he has identified are exactly the same as those that were first noted 50 years ago. We may be a maturing population but our marketing techniques are going nowhere.

The Golden Economy is compiled from existing literature and new research and is full of ideas. The causes of market failure being so complex, unfortunately the report can offer no single explanation of what’s gone wrong or how to put it right. One of its clearest messages is that significant numbers of older people are spending less than their incomes would appear to allow: it’s not simply lack of money holding back spending.

The true barriers are best understood from anecdotal evidence: the housebound man who would like to buy by mail order but can’t get to the Post Office to return goods; the blind woman who would like to buy stylish clothes, but has no one to tell her how they look when she tries them on. In many European cities, over-50s are one of the main groups eating out, yet restaurant menus are printed in such a way that it is virtually impossible for anyone over 50 to read them without glasses.

Often these obstacles are the result of a simple lack of thought, of designers and marketers failing to put themselves in the shoes of their consumers. At the root of that lies ageism – a reluctance to think about getting older, presumably in the hope that, if ignored, it might simply go away. A vicious circle sets in: advertisers don’t pay attention to the older market, so the media don’t see any need to cover or address older people, so older people feel they don’t matter and have no right to assert themselves. Too often, they blame their own shortcomings for the lack of services (‘What else can I expect at my age?’)

There are dismayingly few examples of good practice, although David Sinclair cited an interesting case at the launch event for the report. Some time ago, Google doubled the size of its entry box without explanation. The only clue to what was going on came from a small blog by a designer, who revealed the move was meant to make the search engine more accessible. Good inclusive design, as has been noted again and again, is almost unnoticeable because it benefits everyone.

Girls shopping

This is how you have to look when you go shopping

There is a real problem in marketing to older consumers, in that no one wants to think of themselves as old, or even ‘older’. So you have to take age out of the equation while thinking of what works for people who for any number of reasons are not standard, or fully fit. But in a profoundly ageist society, that’s a big ask. Think of shopping, and what do you visualise? I’d be surprised if it’s not twentysomething girls with carrier bags: shopping is presented as an exclusively youthful pleasure.

Yet older people need to eat and care for their homes and wear clothes and have a good time as much as anyone else. This report is a useful reminder of that, while also painting a rather daunting picture of how far we have to go to give everyone fair and easy access to the goods they need.

ILC report