Sometimes I meet people who seem genuinely perplexed by my passion for the work that I do. Trying to convey the warmth and genuine love I have for my vocation isn’t always easy, particularly amongst those with very negative viewpoints of older people and people living with dementia. In my mind, however, if I can plant just one small seed of positivity into their mind then our conversation will have been worthwhile.
As those who have followed my work will know, I began D4Dementia for two main reasons: To help others and to ensure that the legacy of my dad’s life makes a real and lasting difference to society. What I never imagined was that just 18 months later I would receive a very prestigious award.
Being named ‘Best Independent Voice on Older People’s Issues’ at this year’s Older People in the Media Awards is undoubtedly the highlight of these last 18 months. My only sadness is that my dad isn’t here with me to share in this award, and be part of the photos and the memories, but I hope that he is very proud of the legacy his life is creating.
I have been truly blessed to receive so many congratulatory messages, every one of which I am very grateful for, and as you can imagine my family, and in particular my mum, are incredibly proud. This award is about more than just my personal celebrations, however. It is a huge honour to have received it, but it is an even greater responsibility.
Our ageing population is growing on an unprecedented scale. The prevalence of dementia is also increasing, as are the numbers of people living with other long-term health conditions that require health and social care support. Against this backdrop there are also many other factors that are affecting older people’s quality of life. Do we have enough suitable housing? Can our elders manage to keep warm and eat healthily with the incomes that they have? And with more older people living alone, how do we support them with social interaction, combat isolation and loneliness, and ensure that they can live a meaningful life?
Huge questions that sadly I don’t have all the answers to. My role, however, is to continue to ask these questions, support campaigns that try to address key shortcomings in society (including the newly launched ‘Silver Line’ that offers older people a free, 24 hour, confidential helpline), and provide a voice to articulate the issues that concern older people. I have never, and will never understand why as a society we struggle so much to support and care for our citizens as they get older, but a particular tweet recently bought an element of thinking around this issue into sharp focus.
Put simply, the person sending the tweet said that as a society we lose interest in any group of people who do not contribute monetarily to our country. Although this goes vehemently against my viewpoint, I have to admit that I fear this person is painfully accurate in their observations. It has long bothered me that in a world obsessed by celebrity, image, technology and money, many older people are deemed irrelevant, surplice to requirements and a burden on society.
I’ve written previously about how we don’t see older people in a positive light because they aren’t young and sexy. Many older people simply couldn’t care less about the superficial nature of celebrity and image, and frankly I would argue that they have a very good point! Some older people have embraced technology (my mother had a smartphone before I did), but many others prefer more conventional methods of communication and avoid social media and having a house full of wires and ‘devices’. Should they be ostracised from society because of this? No of course not.
Meanwhile, for many people retirement means a fixed income that over time can leave them struggling to cope against the rising cost of living. I would point out, however, that people on a pension are still taxed once their income goes over a relatively meagre threshold, and of course many people end up having to use their life savings, and even sell their home, to pay for care.
Despite all of the negative perceptions of older people they are still consumers, contributing hugely to the economy in the retail, tourism and leisure sectors to name just a few. They were the people who pioneered the early inventions that have led to the technology we have today, and indeed defended the freedoms we now take for granted. Whatever Mr Google can tell you, he will never be as engaging as listening to an older person imparting their unique brand of knowledge and wisdom, complete with the wrinkles and grey hairs that are the trademark of a life lived to the max. And perhaps most engagingly of all, our elders offer us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to connect to generations who have now passed away, a connection that we often take for granted until it is too late to make it.
I’m proud of our older people. Their stoicism and resilience. Their dignity and wisdom. Even in the darkest days of my dad’s dementia, he had the fundamental qualities of being a good and decent person that many people much younger than him could learn from. Our elders have an elegance that a lot of my contemporaries cannot match, and they have a charisma that draws you into their stories and memories that I only hope I can match when I’m in my 70’s, 80’s and 90’s.
Being positive about ageing is about more than just pointing out what makes our older people so wonderful, however. It’s about realising that, health and luck permitting, we will all be older one day. Technically, as every day goes past we take another small step towards being an older person. Personally I want to approach those days with positivity, enjoying the wisdom I’m accumulating and the stories I will have to tell, and in a society that I know will value me.
Receiving my award gave me a particularly special story to tell, and I hope that as YOUR ‘Best Independent Voice on Older People’s Issues’ I will make many more.
Thank you for all your support.
Until next time…