Better Life project allows older people to tell it like it is

When it comes to the lives of older people we don't have to look far for repeated references to troubles such as how to fund adequate care in later life, neglect within the health service or financial struggles. In fact, the list of challenges facing many older people is a very long one made even worse by cuts to services. But sometimes it's the things we don't hear much about that are deserving of attention. Things that don't always focus on older people as helpless or as a financial strain to grapple with but rather as a diverse, engaged and even dynamic sector of society.

Charities have been battling valiantly to force older people's issues to the top of the policy agenda. The proportion of older people is growing – the UK is expected to have 3.5 million people over 85 by 2034 – and it presents a singular test for advocates and politicians.

There are attempts being made to explore the issue of ageing in contemporary Britain in a broader sense. Among the more interesting projects to emerge recently is the Better Life initiative by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF). The five-year project, which launched earlier this month, aims to probe how we can ensure the best quality of life for people with high support needs such as adults with learning disabilities. More than this though, Better Life showcases the views of older people with high support needs in their own words, which it hopes will help counteract the stereotyping of some groups. So, the voices featured are those of people living with dementia or learning disabilities, as well as Asian elders, older gay and lesbian people and Gypsies.

It would be easy to dismiss Better Life as well meaning but devoid of a direct impact on the hardships highlighted by charities and campaigners. But Better Life affords respect to people who for most of their lives may have felt on society's fringes. Second, it challenges some of the more general assumptions about ageing by reminding us that even the most vulnerable older people are capable of – and entitled to – a good quality of life. "Older people tend to be portrayed as dependants, or burdens, or patients or sufferers defined by their condition, or as passive service users or care receivers," says a JRF spokesman.

But there is also an implicit understanding that addressing the mistreatment and marginalisation of older people is unlikely to materialise without a shift in society's attitudes. John, a man with learning disabilities from east London who contributed to the project, says: "Just because we get older doesn't mean we can't do things."


Sourced from The Guardian, 21st February 2012.