A few weeks ago, Age UK’s celebrity ambassador, Christopher Biggins, talked about the need to celebrate older age and to see retirement as ‘just the beginning’. As a charity that wants to celebrate ‘later life’, this was a welcome counterpoint to the negativity that can arise when thinking about ageing.
But sadly, this negativity tends to be the default way in which ageing and later life are viewed in our society. There are far more reports in the media, for example, of politicians worrying about how to pay for the cost of an ageing population than looking positively at the great opportunities this brings. For example, the older population makes an enormous contribution to our society through volunteering – many local charities would fall over without their help – and through providing childcare. In addition, of course, growing numbers of older people are still working and paying their taxes, even past their State Pension Age.
However, we know though that rates of depression are quite high among the older population overall, perhaps because as the Hollywood actress Bette Davies once said, “ageing isn’t for cissies!” Getting older can be tough, especially because of the likelihood of experiencing the loss of the people you have loved throughout your life.
We all have our off days, but at Age UK we know that some very unfortunate older people find themselves stuck in a horrible rut of depression and low self-esteem from which they find it impossible to escape. In our new report, ‘Struggling to Cope with Later Life’, we explore why this sometimes happens and what can be done to help.
Based on in-depth interviews with older people, group discussions with family and friends and a workshop with professionals, it was clear that those in this position struggle with low motivation, lack of hope that things could ever get better and a consequent reluctance to ask for support, or sometimes even to accept it when it is offered.
As one interviewee told us:
‘Some days I think “I don’t want to be here”. I feel life would be easier for my son… I do rely on him a lot … It breaks my heart to think he feels as if his life is on hold for me… I didn’t bring him into this world to look after me.’
The older people who spoke to us often felt ‘stuck’ in the situation they were in. Some were isolated and very much on their own but others had friends or relatives who worried about them but who couldn’t find a way to get through to them and help.
In some cases the experience of difficult events in later life, for example bereavement or forced exit from the workplace due to health problems, were precursors to these issues, while for others coping with these feelings had been a life-long challenge, made overwhelming by the additional challenges of later life.
Discussions with these older people suggested that they were acutely aware of the generally negative view of age and ageing in our society and had taken it very much to heart. This is something everyone needs to think about: the ageism around us can have a direct impact on sensitive older people, making life really miserable for them. If this was more widely understood, perhaps people would think twice before castigating and stereotyping older people in ways that are thoroughly taboo now when applied to differences in race, gender or sexual orientation, and rightly so.
We hope our report also encourages people to look beyond labels like ‘grumpy’, and ‘odd’ when considering older people who might be struggling with later life. Additionally, we want older people themselves to think about how to avoid getting dragged down by very real challenges of ageing, and how to make changes for the better if this happens.