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Supple joints and friendship - the keys to happiness in old age?

Posted Thursday 26 May 2011

Almost 1,000 people aged over 65 shared their experiences with the research team. Image: iStockphotoMaintaining social relationships and mobility in old age are so important for general well-being that some elderly people will go to extreme lengths to keep active, according to research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). Surveys conducted during the development of an innovative measure of quality of life in older people found that some 90-plus year-olds continued to play bowls with the aid of new knees, arm extensions or binoculars to help beat double vision.

According to the research, developed by Ann Bowling, Professor of Health Care for Older Adults at Kingston University London and St George's, University of London, another key to happiness in old age is resourcefulness. One 85-year-old widower told the researchers he had developed a wooden 'sock horn' so he could dry between his toes after the death of his wife who used to help him because he couldn't bend down, and had even given some to other people with the same problem.  

The research was led by Professor Ann Bowling, who specialises in the healthcare of older adults. A new, well-validated questionnaire was launched at a debate on how to measure what matters to people, in the context of David Cameron's announcement last year that governments need to concern themselves with the well-being of those they govern as well as the country's gross domestic product.

In a keynote presentation, Professor Bowling told an audience of 200 representatives of academia, policy, government and voluntary groups that an essential requirement for coping with the challenges of older age was to build up reserves of social support and self belief. "These social and psychological resources enable people to make the most of their skills, opportunities and abilities so they can compensate when they can no longer do things," she said.

Opening the debate, Baroness Sally Greengross, chief executive of the International Longevity Centre-UK (ILC-UK), said developing robust methods of measuring quality of life would help both government and individuals plan for the future. "Well-being means different things at different times to different people so we need precise methods of measurement," she said. "The long-term aim is to find out what can be done to improve the quality of life amongst older people." 

The event marked the national launch of a series of regional debates on quality of life in older age organised by the International Longevity Centre-UK and the Actuarial Profession in partnership with the ESRC. Professor Bowling explained that it had been necessary to develop a new method of measuring quality of life in older age because previous questionnaires had relied on 'expert' or 'top down' opinions and measures such as income. The Older People's Quality of Life Questionnaire was developed from a series of face-to-face interviews with 999 people aged 65 plus, randomly sampled across Britain over a period of nine years, and further tested with two more national samples of people aged 65 plus, with one reflecting ethnic diversity. "Quality of life is a subjective concept so we decided it was necessary to ask older individuals what their priorities were," Professor Bowling said. 

Universities Week 2011 runs from Monday June 13 to Sunday June 19.Paul Allin, programme director for the Office of National Statistics (ONS), gave an update on its programme to design and publish short survey measures of the well-being of the United Kingdom, that go wider than economic measures, such as GDP, which are regularly published in the UK National Accounts. A report, outlining the findings of the overall debate and next steps will be published this summer. Annual data will be available from July 2012.

Emily Grundy, Professor of Demographic Gerontology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, described how large differences between levels of happiness were reported by older people in northern and southern Europe. The role of relatives and the state in caring for the elderly also varied widely, with nearly 80 per cent of women of 80 plus living alone in northern countries of Europe compared to only 30 per cent in southern Europe. However, the research found that in southern, east and west Europe single women who lived with their children were happier than those living alone while, contrary to expectations, this was not the case in northern Europe.

As with the Older People's Quality of Life research, the Europe-wide study found that people's expectations were crucial to their perceived happiness. "People who compare their lives to those of previous generations generally say they are happier," Professor Grundy reported. "And, overall, there appears to be a higher level of well-being for old people in the north than the south of Europe and more depression in the southern countries."

Paul Cann, chief executive of Age UK Oxfordshire, called for better balance in considering the needs of older people. He said too much attention had been paid to physical needs such as who pays for the bath. Loneliness was as bad for the health as smoking and it was vital to help people maintain social contact in older age.

  • Measuring the Quality of Life was a joint debate organised by the International Longevity Centre-UK and the Actuarial Profession in partnership with the ESRC. It took place at Staple Inn Hall, High Holborn, London, on May 10


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