Wrinkle alert! Switch off the telly

Miriam O'Reilly

Miriam O'Reilly

There is little to add to the welter of commentary that has been written about Miriam O’Reilly since the former Countryfile presenter won her case for age discrimination against the BBC.

Except….pretty much all the comment has supported O’Reilly, whose sacking is widely seen as an injustice, her stand brave and proper. The BBC has been ridiculed and rebuked for its senior executives’ weirdly complacent defence that this is just how things are done in television.

Given that response, on what basis did the executives decide that we want to see only very youthful people on screen? Why was Botox recommended to O’Reilly before she was sacked? Do they research these things at the BBC? Does anyone actually investigate viewers’ preferences? If so, and they are responding to them, they should tell us that we are being hypocritical. If not, if their insistence on youth is arbitrary and whimsical, they should be ashamed of themselves.

The population is ageing. The average age of BBC viewers is 50 – customers who are repeatedly insulted by the absence of people their own age on screen, presumably on the grounds of being too ugly or unpleasant to contemplate.

The pleasure that has been taken in O’Reilly’s vindication suggests that you can tell older people that they should be invisible and silent only for so long. You will reach a point where imposing your own prejudiced notions of what is attractive and acceptable can no longer persuade people that they are too past it to matter. It  just makes them angry.

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What do care home residents really want?

Thomas Hammer Jakobsen

Thomas Hammer Jakobsen: finding ways to improve quality of life in care homes

In this era of growing numbers of old people and little money, care home providers will always be aiming to supply their services more efficiently and cheaply.

For the people on the receiving end, on the other hand, all that matters is quality of life. But in this relationship, they are definitely the vulnerable party  – less organised, more diverse and facing far more difficulty in being heard.

I recently met Thomas Hammer Jakobsen of Copenhagen Living Lab, who is running a project in Denmark’s largest nursing home, Sølund, to identify how the experience of living in a care home could be improved. Copenhagen Living Lab’s ethnographic research, which involved joining residents for two months, uncovered a number of areas offering scope for change. Some of these were fundamental – residents wanted to be helped to hang on their ‘outside’ identity, for example, by strengthening their links to the past and being helped to conserve and celebrate their memories; they also wanted death treated as a normal part of life. And some wanted more specific things, such as an easy way for someone who is wheelchair-bound to close doors and windows.

Eight companies have now been brought in and are currently trying out solutions, some high-tech, some not (for example, counselling people before they come in to the home, to make the transition less abrupt and de-naturing). The first assessments of these will be made in a couple of months.

User-centred design based on ethnographic research has been highly fashionable among those trying to improve public services for some years now; but lately, some of the foremost thinkers in the field have warned against over-enthusiasm for all the collaborative innovation and co-creation (choose your buzzword). Simon Roberts, himself an anthropologist, points out in an excellent blog that user-centred design is not automatically a panacea. If you want a clever, nuanced explanation of the arguments you should read both his blog and another by Geoff Mulgan to which he links.

My rather slapdash journalistic sense of what they’re saying is that:

  • Designers can get too caught up in the research phase, so that identifying problems, rather than solving them, seems like the key task.
  • Doing the ethnography doesn’t guarantee that users will actually be involved in designing solutions.
  • ‘Users’ are actually individuals. They’re not homogeneous and improving quality of life is complex and not always susceptible to systems, let alone a piece of technology.
  • Designers like to start from the premise that radical reorganisation is the only solution, but that may not necessarily be the case.

I’m looking forward to seeing what solutions emerge from Sølund. Thomas Hammer Jakobsen is persuasive and passionate, and he and his collaborators have introduced some quite simple things to do with keeping people warm, for example, as well as more ambitious ideas such as a way of giving dementia patients freedom to move around and explore their environment while ensuring they don’t wander off.

The arguments about user-centred design are likely to rumble on. It’s understandable that people are getting a bit weary of hearing about co-creation every time any change in services is mooted, but its central insights remain persuasive: of course users should be the starting point. And the best new products and services tend to arise out of and necessitate a new way of thinking about relationships.

Normal service resumes

Judi Dench and The QueenNormal service is about to resume – with apologies to anyone who noticed that Christmas has been quiet. In the meantime, here are some links:

First, a piece I wrote for the Daily Telegraph, pegged to the news that nearly a fifth of people in the UK will live to be 100.

Second, a New York Times op-ed article by Susan Jacoby, which touches on the longevity/morbidity debate: will longer lives be lived in good health, or will they mean longer periods of illness? Truth is, we don’t know. The latter is an alarming prospect, yet, especially since Shipman, very few doctors appear willing to debate publicly the limits to their obligations to keep people alive.

Third, an article from The Economist suggesting that happiness begins at the age of 46 – though if you’re Ukrainian, it appears you’ll have to wait until your mid-60s. A look at the burgeoning field of happiness indices, with a bit of speculation as to why happiness seems to grow, or at least return, as people age.

And last but not least, a report card on his generation by the Australian philosopher Peter Singer as the first baby boomers reach 65. This is a much broader take on the effects of the boomers than the usual economic analyses, taking in war, the environment and poverty. Personal, beautifully written, and optimistic.