Thursday 3 February 2011

Saga Lout

Yesterday I was at the CBI in central London for the first meeting of the Mental Health Foundation's new working group on mental health and aging. I am pleased to join the great and the good to work on this project as I have faith in the Foundation to get it right - as they have recently in their excellent work on loneliness (see this page on their site and my previous post here) and very recently sleep (see this page for a great interactive resource). Unlike some prominent mental health organisations the Foundation is careful not to infect other areas of life with the baleful and disempowering language and methodology of the "progressive" (i.e. intrusive and untherapeutic) mental health establishment.

I should first own up to a longstanding reluctance to get involved with the issue of old age. This may be down to several things: (1) having acted as secretary to an Age Concern group in West Wales as part of my professional duties in the then Dyfed Rural Council about 25 years ago. This was an unrewarding experience both for me and I suspect for them although I do remember having some mischievous fun getting avant-garde Royal Academician Arthur Giardelli to judge their art competition to general consternation as he chose as winners some rather (let's say) primitive pieces over the more traditional watercolourists who expected to succeed. Everybody went home early in a sulk and I had to sheepishly take back three out of the four sale-or-return bottles of sherry to Victoria Wine; (2) without any defence I admit that I had until a few years ago shared the prejudicial view that organisations like Hafal were for "people of working age"; (3) I am irritated by the widely-held assumption that old people in general are the salt of the earth and somehow better than everybody else; and (4) no doubt I am afraid of death and don't care to contemplate my own decline towards it: however, as I now qualify as a "Saga lout" being over 50 I suppose it's time get my head around the matter.

But after yesterday's discussion I am quite eager to to get stuck into this subject. I can't fairly give a commentary on what was said by others - you will have to wait for the report - but I can tell you some of my own initial thoughts. From my own observation there are two very specific predictors, or possibly even determinants, of whether somebody is heading for, or already experiencing, a good old age...

The first is their politics. I don't mean whether they are right or left or whatever but rather whether they line up politically (in its widest sense) with other old people (and implicitly or explicitly against everybody else) or with the community of all ages with whom they choose to identify (whether that's their local community, their nation, or something else). To me it is self-evident that the latter group are almost invariably happier and better-equipped to live a fulfilling old age.

The second cross-roads is the attitude of older people to new technology and media. There is a startling divide between those older people who embrace IT and modern communications in order to overcome isolation and engage strongly in the life of their families and wider community and those who do not who I believe substantially lose out not just in practical ways but in terms of their general happiness.

If these are only predictors rather than determinants, in other words already vulnerable people form the unhealthier viewpoints and make the less successful choices, then nevertheless I would argue that useful advice could be formulated to assist people who may not have the best instincts for managing their old age, along the lines of: don't believe everything you read in the Daily Express about young people and the state of our society; bribe your grandchildren to set up and support a PC in your parlour; etc. We will see what the project comes up with.

Also a member of the working group is Bharat Mehta, formerly my boss at NSF whom I haven't seen for many years; he runs Trust for London, the huge fund based on historic bequests which aims to tackle poverty in the capital. It is a great pleasure to see him again and I will be carrying his best wishes back to the many Hafal veterans who have happy memories of his kindness and wit.

For myself I will aim to follow Montaigne's counsel of embracing frailty with equanimity and resignation. As Mark Twain said Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter.