When faced with a ‘grey tsunami’ should we try to run, or get out our Malibu boards?
Looking round the room on our first day of Full of Life volunteer training in Lambeth, it isn’t clear how the day will go. Everyone seems to have come from very different walks of life and I worry that there won’t be many shared experiences to bond over. It isn’t long before the trainer, a bubbly Scottish lady with a thick Glaswegian accent, asks disarmingly- “Does anyone here feel happy the whole time?”. Everyone looks at each other. Suddenly we are all in the same boat. One gentleman has recently lost his wife, another lady shares that she often struggles with anxiety. We all have challenges in our lives and through sharing these glimpses I can see they feel emboldened. We all do in some way.
Transformed from a group of sleepy eyed coffee gluggers, at the mercy of our addictions and emotions, to a group empowered to take the reigns of our moods by the afternoon. Before the end of the day we have to set an achievable goal to focus on ahead of the next session. This exercise will be used often in the Full of life groups, when the volunteers, many of whom are retired themselves, deliver these groups to older people in Lambeth. Some share their ambitions and others have chosen to make them silently. One gentleman would like to go to the cinema with someone. For him this is a challenge which entails raising the courage to ask someone to go with him. Sharing this, he says, makes it seem achievable, as we all chip in with suggestions on how best he can tackle his personal challenge.
At a time when public services are facing extreme financial cuts, and prospects for the elderly seem increasingly bleak, we could do well to avoid mentally relegating retirees to a life of gradual decline and instead look at what obstacles are preventing them from contributing to society. Rather than preparing for a generation of passive public service depend-ees we need to work towards a framework that encourages independence and inclusion. A decade ago Help the Aged warned that “Without a boost in those services which support independence, there is likely to be increasing pressure on those that cater for dependence.”
Yet just how to enable older people to remain in the driver’s seat – both figuratively and indeed physically, remains difficult to determine. A solution that involves enlisting help from the people that we are trying to empower seems particularly fitting. The Young Foundation is piloting just such a self help and peer-support model- local volunteers, have been trained to facilitate groups for older people, where the discussion of the group members’ personal experiences and current concerns is framed within the ideas of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Simply put, by understanding how our thoughts and beliefs impact our moods and behaviours we can learn ways to improve our mood and wellbeing and take back control of our day-to-day experiences.
The challenges that people face as they grow older, such as being cut off from friends, having to move out of your family home or live with chronic pain, would be enough to floor any younger person. They take a lot of resilience to weather. If we can avoid defining people, as they age, by their physical circumstances and, instead, focus on providing them with opportunities to take more control of their situation, they may even find time to share the wealth of experience and knowledge that they have to offer. With a new mindset on ageing we can have cause to celebrate the power of the wave and age with a new prognosis – full of life.