Getting older and more creative

Doug Wilson 15.01.21

Doug Wilson

The relationship between creativity and age has long been questioned. Academics conclude that the average peak of creativity is in our 20s, reaching a peak in early 40s, before declining.

However, this represents an average figure, assessed by measurable output in science and art. There are a wealth of exceptions. Many older people happily trundle along, comfortable in how it’s always been. But others ignore their age, diving into new projects, living a busy creative life.

Despite creativity fading on average with age, at 80 many individuals have exhibited they can create new stuff. If you’ve got enough to start you will still have tons left as age rolls on.

Frank Lloyd Wright finished the Guggenheim Museum, age 92, Verdi was 70 when he released his masterpiece Falstaff opera at 85, Michelangelo sculpted till his death at 88 and Grandma Moses began painting after 70. Perhaps creativity is fading in today’s world as screens and headphones create isolation bubbles, limiting the flow of ideas between individuals.

A friend, a past international political journalist, now in her mid-70s, takes every conversation into her unique world. She sees frailty in the self-confident, excitement in the banal, hope for the underprivileged. Most of us see two sides to many questions, she sees five or six sides. Take your pick. That is dazzling creativity.  

George Washington University conducted a formal study of creativity in older people. A group of 150 people with an average age of 80 met regularly with creative individuals in the arts and humanities. A control group of 150 enjoyed their cups of tea and their usual life, and the two groups were compared. After two years the study revealed the first group who pushed to exercise their creative skills gained immeasurably in confidence and independence. Pursuing the creative was not only a pleasant diversion but resulted in a positive gain in good living. Creativity improved wellbeing.

I was born in 1937, and I grew up in Auckland. We had no TV, and minimal radio for kids. Classic Comics and books were my stimulation. I had a vivid imagination, but my spelling dyslexia made it difficult to convert my ideas into stories that others could read. So I pursued a medical career in New Zealand, London, Oxford, Melbourne, Saudi Arabia, and eventually as a pharmaceutical executive in United States and Germany.

My wish to be a writer, remained as powerful as ever, but my writing and spelling incompetence continued the barrier. Spellcheck, and the dictating Dragon Speak, broke me through to the creative universe of writing. I published my first kid’s story aged 76. My hero Tom Hassler, arrived, firstly to battle the Rats of Droolmoan Cave. A series of kids’ books have followed to fair acceptance.

I’ve written 11 books for kids in seven years.

Publishing gives me an outlet for my pent-up wish to produce stories for others. I needed a creative outlet, and technology helped me find it. I’ve also published a guide for older individuals: Ageing for Beginners and have almost completed a successor book. How did it come together?

Stories were no problem for my imagination, but I had no experience of the technique of writing fiction. So various rewrites were needed to escape from the language being ponderous, and even archaic. My friend Spellcheck was there to overcome my dyslexia. A writing course with Tessa Duder followed and the task became increasingly easy, as the characters took on their own life and drove part of the script.

At 83 I’m still enthusiastic. I’m writing for kids, as well as translating complex medical and scientific information into useful communications. I’m a regular on Radio New Zealand with Kim Hill talking about ageing and my Ageing for Beginners podcasts have found fans around the world. In Kim’s words, I am reporting from ‘the frontline of ageing’. Live radio and podcasts force me to be more deliberate about selecting and marshalling of facts, all the time defaulting to make complex scientific communications simple.

And in my spare time my imagination conjures up books like Zeke Battle: Earthquake Boy.

Is creativity possible after the age of 70?

It sure is.

You gain, but so do others.

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Solving the housing crisis – inter-generational tension?

Judith Davey 11/12/20

Looking back over nearing 200 blog posts which I have written for the Age Concern New Zealand since 2012, I notice a considerable number on housing for older people and one, in September 2019, on inter-generational conflict. The latter came to mind when I read two articles in a recent Policy Quarterly (Vol.16, 2, 2020) on the housing crisis. It seemed to me that they had the potential to raise another possible cause of inter-generational conflict, adding to concerns about the tax burden of an ageing population, the cost of NZ Superannuation and the impact on the job market.

One, by Nick Wilson is entitled – Fixing the housing crisis: the role of inter-generational policy design in addressing the issues and the other Downsizing property among the older generation: a means to free up New Zealand’s housing stock is by Richard Mclaughlan.

Causes
Both set out the causes of the housing crisis as they see it, discussing the effect of inconsistencies in capital taxation; they give property a relative tax advantage which homeowners have benefited from, but which raise house prices for younger people.  

Among other causes are barriers to development –“ The Resource Management Act is widely  considered  to  be  a  central  issue  restricting housing development;” and the fact that urban infrastructure is not able to support new residential  developments in some areas.  

But Mclaughlan expands on how contrasts between generations have resulted in inequities. Decreases in home ownership among the 30-49 age groups have resulted in “increased periods of renting and financial insecurity among this cohort”. On the other hand, baby boomers have largely benefited from secure home ownership. Despite higher interests rates in the 1970s and 1980s, inflation rates quickly eroded  away  mortgage debt and made it much easier to enter the property market. “Subsequently, this generation has realised disproportionate financial gain from property,” as well as being lightly taxed.

Mclaughlan suggests that this has resulted in an “over-consumption of large dwellings by  retirees which adversely affects first home buyers.”  Rather than downsizing to a more suited property,  couples  or  single  individuals “continue to enjoy large dwellings late  into  retirement.” And this “inefficient use of housing stock … will only get worse as  retirement  periods  increase”.

Solutions
Just as taxation settings have contribute to the housing crisis, they could also be part of the solution. Dixon suggests a centrally levied land tax or a capital gains tax (despite the latter’s current  political  unpopularity).  A tax burden on older homeowners could be countered by reverse mortgages. However, he also calls for “constructive inter-generational conversations  about  public  policy” which could “help reduce  inter-generational  tensions  that  could  otherwise  prevent  the  development  of  enduring beneficial policies.”

Mclaughlan also feels that a capital gains tax is required to “mitigate the benefits enjoyed by older property owners”, and to discourage the over-investment in property. But his emphasis is on downsizing, which he asserts “has the capacity to provide a better quality of life to vulnerable elderly who struggle with day-to-day tasks.”

While he acknowledges that it is “not the place of public policy to dictate the actions of this cohort” he insists that policy must be used “to remove distortions which incentivise retirees to remain in artificially large houses.” And that “Older generations can save by reducing their dwelling size, while at the same time increasing  the  ease  of  access  to  amenities  that  are  in  the  neighbourhood of their property.”

To achieve the required scale of downsizing will need financial incentives and the increased provision of one- and two-bedroom houses. This could be achieved, suggests Mclaughlan, by reducing council rates for the elderly in areas with high density one–two bedroom households and cash incentives to facilitate the move.

Mclaughlan concludes –“If  more  appropriate housing options were made available for  retirees, a significant proportion of large dwellings would be made accessible to young  and  expanding  families. “While increasing the supply of housing should remain  the  focal  concern   for   the   government, resources should be devoted to freeing up existing stock to mitigate the  housing  crisis.”

Wilson also concludes – “It is clear that New Zealand faces a large housing issue, one that is inter-generational in cause and can also be inter-generational in solution.”

I have always maintained that no single type of housing is appropriate for all older people and that there should be wider choice of housing options for this age group. So, while I sympathise with the housing problems of young people, especially families, I am cautious about anything which might smack of coercion applied to older people in their housing choices and preferences.

An option which I find attractive is the construction of several small units, designed for later life living, on large sections scattered around urban areas. In this way smaller houses, appropriately designed and not requiring large-scale gardening, could allow older people to remain in their familiar neighbourhoods, with social contacts not just with their own age group (as in retirement villages) but also with neighbours of other generations. How could this be achieved? There are already examples in areas where local authorities are forward-looking in their regulatory processes.


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Volunteering – good advice from the UK

Judith Davey 27/11/20

In many of my blog posts I have mentioned “generativity” – the “giving back” by older people to society and specifically to oncoming generations. While not mentioning the concept of generativity specifically, numerous policy statements and “strategies” emphasise the importance of contribution and participation as part of positive ageing – outlining the benefits to individuals, communities, and society as a whole. Volunteering is a major way of realising contribution and participation, but many organisations are finding it difficult to recruit volunteers, and older people are a major source for this.

There is plenty of evidence of how volunteering can benefit older people – serving
as a replacement for work and family roles that may figure less prominently in later life. British research has shown that volunteering among older adults is correlated with increases in well-being, mental and physical health. “As well as helping others, we help ourselves through building confidence, social connections and a sense of purpose.”

Other research, this time from the USA, suggests that volunteerism among older adults tends to be concentrated in more advantaged groups – those who have more education, higher income, better health, and some religious involvement. More older women than men volunteer, but older men are more likely to formally volunteer than are younger men.

Given these benefits, it is worth looking ways to encourage volunteering among older people and the barriers which may discourage them. The research findings also suggest that widening participation among social groups is a relevant goal.

“We have an ageing and increasingly diverse population. We need a new
approach to community participation and volunteering to ensure that more people enjoy the wellbeing benefits of being involved with their communities” (CBA, 2020).

The Centre for Ageing Better in the UK has recently published a report – Helping Out – Taking an inclusive approach to engaging older volunteers. This is a guide designed as a practical tool to support organisations working to engage with volunteers aged over 50 and to widen participation. On the basis of widespread consultation, this report again found that those who are least healthy and least wealthy are the least likely to take part in volunteering, but also the most likely to benefit.

Barriers to volunteering

The CBA review found that many people face practical, structural and emotional barriers to taking part in volunteering. These barriers can worsen for people as they age and their personal circumstances change – for example, developing a health condition or taking on caring responsibilities. Types of barriers identified were –

Practical – cost, transport needs, physical access, language.

Structural – inflexible offers, bureaucratic processes, lack of resources, digital divide.

Emotional – lack of confidence, stigma/stereotypes, lack of welcome, fear of over-commitment, not feeling valued.

The main messages from the CBA report, to combat these barriers were –

Connect and Listen
• Spend time listening and getting to know your volunteers to find out what skills and experience they bring, and what they want to do. Use conversations rather than formal applications.
• Listen and empower people to do what matters to them – and in ways that work for them. Consider diversity.
• Celebrate everyone’s contributions and share stories, successes and experiences. Encourage regular participants to welcome and support newcomers to help them develop confidence and new skills.
• Instead of using the term ‘volunteering, which can be off-putting, talk about ‘helping out’, ‘being a good neighbour’ or ‘giving time’.

Remove barriers
• Make the application, joining and induction processes simple, with clear and accessible information and concise forms.
• Focus on the person and the support they might need as an individual. Often emotional barriers are overlooked, such as lack of confidence or self-esteem.
• Think about ways to support people to take part. For example, offer respite for carers, help with travel to venues, access to and training for digital work.

Be flexible
• Make activities fun and welcoming. The social aspect may draw people to opportunities to help in their communities.
• Create a range of opportunities to suit different circumstances, interests and abilities and different levels of commitment.
• Try out different low-tech, low-cost, low-risk ways of engaging with people. Offer a choice of quick, easy tasks, in shorter chunks of time that people can take part in
with little or no commitment.
• Consider developing ‘taster’ or ‘micro-volunteering’ sessions and activities.

[1] Centre for Ageing Better (CBA) 2020, Helping Out – Taking an inclusive approach to engaging older volunteers. ageing-better.org.uk

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“Longevity Dividend” 2 – What can we do to delay the biological processes of ageing?

Judith A.Davey 13/11/2020

In my previous post, when I looked at the social, health and economic benefits of the so-called “Longevity Dividend” I noted that this change could come about by delaying the biological processes of ageing and thereby extending the lifespan of the human species. And even if we make progress against specific diseases, the biological processes of ageing continue. All living things have biochemical mechanisms which influence how quickly they age, and we may be able to adjust these mechanisms, but how?

What is ageing?
“Ageing is commonly characterised as a progressive, generalised impairment of function resulting in increasing vulnerability to environmental challenges and an increased risk of developing disease.”

Why do we age?
The biological state of an organism reflects its capacity to regulate and repair many internal biochemical and biological processes as well as to deal effectively with the effects of the external environment. In humans, changes associated with ageing begin as early as the third and fourth decade and include a progressive reduction in the functioning of vital organs in the body, such as kidneys and heart. This process relates to molecular, cellular and physiological changes.

Over time there is a decline in the ability of an organism to maintain optimal and steady functioning. This involves changes in biochemistry, genetics, DNA and cellular replication. So far, there are no treatments or therapies that have been demonstrated to slow or reverse this process in humans.

Telomeres are specialised regions located at the end of the DNA sequence and act to protect the ends of chromosomes. As each cell renews itself there is a reduction in the length of the telomere. Although telomeres act to prevent uncontrolled and cancerous cellular division, telomere shortening contributes to the ageing process as the number of divisions that a cell may undergo is capped. Telomere length is not fixed and there is significant variation between individuals.

DNA defects also promote the ageing process. During a lifetime DNA will gradually develop damage through a wide variety of mechanisms and this damage will eventually lead to the dysfunction of genes, proteins and cells.

What about genetics?
Observational studies in humans have highlighted particular genes that are associated with exceptional longevity. In the natural world longevity genes have not been subjected to strong selective pressures, because, even if an animal possessed a longevity gene, the benefit would only be realised if the animal successfully escaped all causes of death (predators, disease etc.) or was reared in a protected environment. There has been little evolutionary pressure to select organisms possessing longevity genes and animals have typically allocated genetic resources to ensure reproductive efficiency instead.

It has, however, become apparent that there is a clear relationship between genetic make-up and the ageing process in humans. Longevity genes may act to increase the resistance of the cell to stress or improve its capacity to undertake genetic repair. Longevity genes can also affect various biochemical pathways and reduce the risk of age-related disease development. The children of centenarians have a significantly reduced incidence of diabetes and heart disease compared to age-matched controls, suggesting inherited genetic protection.

Human studies suggest that around 25% of the variation in lifespan is dependent upon genetic profile with the remaining 75% being related to external environmental influences. However, it has been found that more than 50% of decline in cognitive function in older age is determined by genetic factors.

Telomere length is also heritable. People with shortened telomeres are more likely to develop conditions such as atherosclerosis, vascular dementia and infections. If the genetic basis for telomere length can be accurately determined then it may become possible to manipulate telomere length to reduce the risk of developing age-related diseases.

Environmental factors

As we grow older, the influence of environmental factors on our health becomes more important, and the influence of genetic factors less important. The environmental factors that accelerate ageing are those that influence cellular damage and repair. Prominent among these are environmental chemical toxins, such as asbestos, lead, mercury and smog particulates.

Only a small proportion of cancer arises from family history or genetics. Much more is related to environmental factors – smoking, poor nutrition, lifestyle choices – lack of exercise, diet, exposure to sunlight and toxins.

Studies of the ageing of identical twins, with identical genetic make-up, show that differences in visible ageing signs relate to personal lifestyle choices and habits. The most notable factors influencing degree of ageing are sun exposure and smoking. Other possibly contributory lifestyle factors are alcohol consumption, stress, diet, exercise, and medication. It seems that genetic influences on ageing may be overrated, with lifestyle choices exerting far more important effects on physical aging.

How to live longer – all to do with lifestyle
Overall, it seems that physical fitness is the single most important thing an older person can focus on to remain healthy and live longer. This should be accompanied by what we have all heard many times before – better nutrition and hygiene, improvements in health care, better accessibility to education and improved working life, and maintenance of function (social, physical, and psychological).

What else could help?
Caloric restriction (CR) involves a reduction in calorie intake whilst maintaining all the required nutritional substances. CR extends life span and retards age-related chronic diseases in a variety of species including rats, mice, fish and worms. Preliminary experimental results have also yielded promising initial results in primates.

Although there has been comprehensive development of medication and therapies that can reduce the incidence and development of age-related disease, there are no agents that comprehensively reduce cellular damage.

Research therefore suggest that the risk of developing age-related disease processes can be influenced by genetics and lifestyle change. It is the latter which is more likely to be achievable if we want to prolong life and improve its quality.

[1] Dr Lloyd Hughes, What influences how we age? https://www.gmjournal.co.uk/what-influences-how-we-age

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What is the “Longevity Dividend”

By Judith Davey

I had heard the phrase “longevity dividend” in the literature, and recently thought I should find out precisely what it meant and if it was a useful concept in the study of ageing.

The phrase was coined by Jay Olshansky and colleagues in 2006 to describe “the economic and health benefits that would accrue to individuals and societies if we extend healthy life by slowing the biological processes of aging…… shifting our emphasis from disease management to delayed aging.” [1]

This idea was first raised among medical/biology professionals and a book “Extending the Human Life Span: Social Policy and Social Ethics”, was published by Bernice Neugarten and colleagues in 1977. This asked several questions –

  • Should the science of biogerontology be devoted to improving older people’s quality of life? Or should it extend the lifespan of the human species?
  • If lifespan is extended, what would be its deleterious and beneficial effects on society? 
  • What social and ethical implications would follow from a “magic elixir” that would extend active life expectancy?

Certainly, lifespans have been extended by decades, but, at the same time demographic trends – larger numbers of very old people –  have led to rapid increases in chronic and disabling diseases –  cancer, heart disease, stroke, dementia, arthritis, sensory impairments – and, as a result, an increase in the number and proportion of very old people requiring intensive care. Could life be extended, without extending health?

Changing the Medical Model

The current medical model approaches chronic degenerative diseases one at a time, as they arise. This is on the assumption that all diseases are independent of each other—with their own origins and causes. But many risk factors – such as poor nutrition, poverty, behavioural factors and environmental pollution relate to more than one condition. And even if we make progress against specific diseases, the biological processes of aging continue.

The Longevity Dividend can be seen as an approach to public health based on a strategy of fostering health for all generations through health promotion and disease prevention. It seeks to prevent or delay the root causes of disease and disability by attacking the one main risk factor for them all—biological ageing.

All living things have biochemical mechanisms which influence how quickly they age, and it is possible to adjust these mechanisms —by dietary intervention or genetic alteration—to extend life span and postpone ageing-related diseases (I can go into this aspect later). Slowing down the processes of ageing—even by a moderate amount—could bring dramatic improvements in health for current and future generations, allowing them to live healthier and longer lives. 

Multimorbidity, where people are suffering from several degenerative diseases at the same time is characteristic of very old age. But it is associated with a high treatment burden, reduced quality of life and greater health service use. Co-ordination can be easily lost, leading to fragmented care and we need to know more of the best way to manage groups of diagnoses.  Improving the well-being of older people through better management of complex multi-morbidity would be a way of realising this aspect of the longevity dividend.

Could longevity have economic benefits?[2]

While we can celebrate longer life in social terms, an increase in the older population is often framed as economic burden. As populations age, governments worry about an increasing stress on pension systems and the social care sector, especially with fewer younger people supporting growing numbers of retirees. Ageing has also been framed as a problem for employers, having to cope with less physically capable and less adaptable older workers.

But analysis of international data, published by the International Longevity Centre, suggests that. as life expectancy increases, so does “output per worker, per hour worked, and per capita” in other words, economic productivity. I have previously written about how older workers are and could be valued for their skills and experience and ability to mentor younger people. Many older people are also contributing to social welfare by taking on caring roles such as looking after grandchildren and elderly parents. In these ways they are contributing in economic terms.

The longevity dividend, like most economic benefits, is attainable, but needs to be worked for. Mobilising older workers’ skills, expanding labour forces and fostering intergenerational solidarity will mean that rising life expectancy can be both socially and economically good.


[1] S. Jay Olshansky, is from the School of Public Health, Division of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of Illinois, Chicago.  He wrote about the Longevity Dividend in the March/April 2013 issue of Aging Today.

[2] https://theconversation.com/the-longevity-dividend-how-ageing-populations-could-boost-economic-productivity-102056

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Stereotypes and Ageing – How true?

Judith A. Davey

16/10/20

When I last wrote a blog post about ageism – in 2015 – I was concerned mostly about ageism in the workplace.  That is certainly not the only place where it exists, so my eye was caught by a report by the Centre for Ageing Better, in the UK (Swift et al, 2019, ageing-better.org.uk). This was based on a literature review summarising what research tells us about the role and impact of language and stereotypes in framing old age and ageing. This got me thinking.

Who is an “Old Person”?
Differing age ranges are used in the discourse. But the Centre for Ageing Better report uses the term ‘old age’ or ‘older person’ referring to people aged 50 and over. This is also the definition regularly used to define “older workers” in the international literature.  But having children well into their forties makes it hard for me to contemplate that they are verging on old age.

What is Ageism?
Ageism is a combination of how we think about age (stereotypes), how we feel about age (prejudice) and how we behave in relation to age (discrimination).

Because groups of people have similar personal characteristics, such as age, gender, or ethnicity, we can easily make assumptions that they are like each other. This process leads to the development of stereotypes. And sometimes we develop negative attitudes towards those we see as different to ourselves, a process that is often called “othering”.

Descriptive stereotypes represent assumptions about what we think certain groups and individuals are like. Positive assumptions about older people may include politeness, kindness and wisdom.

They can also be negative such as notions that older people are less attractive and less physically able.

These stereotypes influence how we behave towards and interact with older people.

Stereotypes of low competence can lead to feelings of pity but may also encourage neglect and exclusion. Even stereotypes of older people which suggest that they need help can be quite patronising even though they do not seem harmful on the surface. Societal attitudes towards older people have been described as “benign indifference” when ageism is manifest indirectly, as a lack of respect.

Prescriptive stereotypes are assumptions about how we think certain groups of people should or shouldn’t behave. Common examples include the notion that older people must pass on power or jobs to younger people; that older people shouldn’t consume too many resources; and that they should not engage in activities that are seen as traditionally for ‘younger’ people. When older people go against these prescriptive stereotypes, they can face criticism and scorn.

Both descriptive and prescriptive stereotypes can become self-fulfilling, as they can affect how older people view themselves. Being labelled as “elderly” (which to me implies frailty) and “vulnerable” (which to me means risk-prone) made me feel that I must have these characteristics when I was labelled as such during the pandemic lockdown (I have to admit to being well over age 70).

Stereotypes about older people are frequently more negative than positive. As I pointed out before, older workers are perceived to be more dependable, loyal and reliable, but also as having lower levels of performance, less ability to learn, and more costly than younger workers.

In health and social care, stereotypes tend to be even more negative, focusing on physical and cognitive decline and death. The first gerontology conference I attended was dominated by papers on falls, dementia and incontinence, and I wondered what I was letting myself in for in entering this area of research. Subsequently, the topics covered in gerontology conferences and research have become much wider and much more positive – ranging not only into paid work but also participation in the arts, sport and community leadership.

Is there any truth in these stereotypes?
Some stereotypes contain an element of truth. We cannot ignore that health issues become more prevalent with age or that functional abilities change over time. The problem is that stereotypes

ignore the variation between people of the same age.This means that wrong assumptions are made based on age, but which are not true for an individual.

The importance of language
Using patronising and infantilising language towards older people can encourage them to conform to negative stereotypes of old age – low competence and high dependence. The impact may be influenced by the language is used or who is using it. The Centre for Ageing Better report suggests this by its title “Doddery but dear”.

Media representations tend to draw on negative stereotypes, reflecting a view that ageing is associated with inevitable decline. Older people are represented as being more of a burden than benefit. Metaphors such as ‘grey tsunami’, ‘demographic cliff’ and ‘demographic timebomb’ present old age in terms of crisis, reflecting a perception of old age and the ‘baby boomer’ generation as a societal burden. “Boomer” itself has become a derogatory term. This can stoke perceptions of conflict between generations. At a personal level older people are dehumanised by terms such as ‘hags’ and ‘fossils.” The worst epithet I have heard applied to older people is “pre-dead”. On the other hand, TV and films often present older people in an exaggeratedly positive light. We have all seen older people portrayed in advertising in youthful and energetic ways – unrealistic to achieve for many. Some “active” and “successful” ageing narratives can be criticised for exacerbating inequalities by excluding and stigmatising older people who cannot achieve the idealised model.

Later life needs to be recognised as a time of diversity, just like any other age. One of the ways to do this is to readdress the balance and encourage more realistic depictions of ageing in traditional media, social media and policy-making circles, but, overall, without stereotypes.

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Older People and pet animals – benefits and challenges

Dr. Judith Davey

Interacting with an animal or pet is widely thought to have health-related benefits for older people.

Physical health

Having a pet, especially a dog, can increase exercise and physical activity opportunities. Maintaining an active lifestyle helps to maintain overall health. It is associated with a decreased risk of falls, a decline in bone density and muscle strength. It can also support agility, like climbing stairs, bending, and kneeling. Some studies conclude that caring for a pet can help reduce stress and thereby lower blood pressure and high cholesterol levels.

Social activity

Daily walks with pets, as well as adding structure, routine, and purpose to an individual’s day can increase the likelihood of engaging with others, increasing a sense of community, thus developing a stronger social network,. This effect was widely recognised during the recent Covid 19 lockdowns when older people ordered to stay home could still interact with neighbours in their immediate locality.

Emotional health

Positive emotional attachments between people is a well-recognised component of healthy development. Similarly, human‐pet interactions can foster feelings of happiness, love, security, and a sense of responsibility and satisfaction with life. Hence pet ownership can counteract a lack of social support and be protective against feelings of loneliness, provide emotional support, and give people something to talk about with family, friends and caregivers.
Pets need a routine of feeding, walking, etc., this can provide a daily routine. These activities can even be extended into regular personal daily memory tasks such as “remembering to take your medicine”, which have been shown to improve when people are caring for a pet. Studies have shown that elderly people who own pets tend to take better care of themselves.

In summary, pets can provide stimulation, a sense of purpose and protection for their owners, and provide non-judgemental acceptance which ultimately helps older people to live longer, healthier and more enjoyable lives. In most cases, older people make very responsible pet owners and have more time to give to an animal which is mutually beneficial for both pet and their owner. Pets can fill an empty space in the lives of older people, and many spend a great deal of time interacting and talking to their pets, which can be therapeutic. For people who can go days without talking to or seeing another person, the presence of an animal can be hugely beneficial.

But……
However, academic research, looking at the effects of animal interaction on the wellbeing of older people has had mixed results . Many other factors may influence social isolation or loneliness. The relationships that are established between humans and animals are diverse and may depend on a person’s beliefs, personality, and attitudes. Much like human relationships, human‐animal interactions can vary in intensity and form and depend on the behavioural characteristics of the humans and the animals involved, and sometimes on the cultural context. For instance, dogs and cats are thought to develop closer relations with humans than other animals, such as reptiles and fish, because they share more similar “social organisation” and “communication” systems.

Challenges

Pets are not right for everyone and for some people pet ownership can be stressful, expensive and even dangerous.

• In particular, older people may be less mobile and more likely to have balance issues and eyesight problems. So pets and their accoutrements, such as pet beds and food bowls, can be tripping hazards and can cause serious accidents.
• There may also be concerns about getting infectious diseases from a pet, although if older people are in good health they are not necessarily at any greater risk than others.
• For people on a low income, the costs of pet ownership may be prohibitive, or they may elect to spend money on a pet at the expense of food or other items for themselves.
• Changes in health or circumstance sometimes means that an elderly owner may struggle to provide adequate care for their pet, or may need to give up their pet, which can be enormously distressing for both parties.

• Friends and family may try to discourage seniors from getting a pet due to concerns about who will take care of the animal if the person moves into residential care or dies.

• Seniors with pets may also delay moving into residential care, even past the point when they are able to live independently, because care homes do not take pets. One of the people I visited through Age Concern’s service took a very realistic toy cat with her into the rest home.

• Finally, emotional difficulties that pet owners may experience when a pet is ill or dies can rival the effects of caring for a sick family member or coping with the trauma of the death of a close relative.

Pet therapy – otherwise known as Animal Assisted Therapy for seniors may be an alternative to full-time ownership. This is often used in residential care and day centres for older people. Canine Friends Pet Therapy Inc. is a national organisation of volunteers who regularly visit residents of rest homes, as well as patients in hospitals and hospices with their well-behaved dogs. The volunteers are currently visiting 363 rest homes, 16 hospitals, and 12 hospices across the country. Even a few minutes interacting with an animal can be beneficial and improve quality of life.

[1] https://www.bupa.co.nz/life-at-bupa/five-health-benefits-of-owning-a-pet-for-elderly-people/

[1]National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine 2020. Social Isolation and Loneliness in Older Adults: Opportunities for the Health Care System. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

[1] See also – https://www.psychologytoday.com/nz/blog/fellow-creatures/201906/the-challenges-and-benefits-pet-ownership-seniors

Elderly people and pet ownership, by  Trina Cox, Social Worker, Age Concern Canterbury In  “KEEPING ON”,  May 2016.

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COVID-19 indicators for older people

Dr Judith Davey

In February 2020, the Office for Seniors released a set of indicators to track the outcomes of the Better Later Life – He Oranga Kaumātua 2019 to 2034– report[1]. These were later adapted to track the impact of COVID-19 on older people. Indicator data have been reported on in July and August 2020.

Limitations on the  interpretation of trends recorded so far must be acknowledged, e.g. the short time frame, difficulties of comparing this new data to established data sets such as the General Social Survey (last reported in 2018) and small sample sizes which limit disaggregation by age, gender, location and ethnicity. The age group covered is 65 plus, except for the work-related indicators which include people aged 50 plus – which has become us general definition for “older workers”.

The intention was to examine the social and economic consequences of COVID-19 self-isolation requirements and border restrictions, concentrating on the areas where older people and older workers were expected to be most affected. For each area a rationale is provided – quoted below. I have included here only broad conclusions from the findings.

Unemployment of older workers (aged 50+) – percentage of people in the labour force who are not working, are available for work and actively seeking work. 

Rationale: older workers who lose their job are more likely to become unemployed long-term than younger workers.

The official unemployment rate for workers aged 50 plus did not increase in the June 2020 quarter[2]. Theproportion of older workers supported by the original Wage Subsidy (WS) and the COVID-19 Wage Subsidy Extension (WSX) was similar to the support levels for employees of all ages – round about half.

Male job holders  aged 50+ are more likely than women to be in jobs supported by the WS (66% for men and 46% for women aged 50+) and WSX (17% of men aged 50+ versus 11% of women aged 50+). [3]

Jobseeker Support and other benefit take-up (for those aged 50+) -from MSD administrative data.

Rationale: The number of people on income support is expected to increase as people lose their jobs and earn less from investments, and investment balances reduce. Some people who lose their job due to COVID-19 may take up the COVID-19 Income Relief Payment (CIRP)[4].

The number of people aged 50+ receiving Jobseeker Support (JS) and CIRP increased over the period. More people over 50 are also receiving other benefits and supplementary assistance, for example Accommodation Supplement and Disability Allowance.

Loneliness – percentage of older people feeling lonely at least some of the time. The primary data source for this is likely to be the HLFS COVID-19 supplement.

Rationale: Loneliness and social isolation may be a particular risk for those aged 70+ or with compromised immune systems who were asked to stay home for longer, and for those who are unable to connect with family and friends digitally.

The proportion of people aged 75 plus who have felt lonely at least some of the time in the previous four weeks was higher in the June 2020 quarterthan the equivalent measure collected in the 2018 General Social Survey (GSS). [5] 

Discrimination – percentage of seniors experiencing discrimination, including ageism, from Stats NZ’s HLFS COVID-19 supplement.

Rationale: Perceptions that lockdown and the associated economic impacts were only to protect older people, and that older people are vulnerable, may increase ageism.

The proportion of people aged 65-74 who experienced some form of discrimination in the previous 12 months increased in the June 2020 quarter[6]. But these comparisons do not exactly cover the COVID-19 period. Older women are more likely to report loneliness and discrimination than men. But on most measures young people remain the most likely to experience these risks to mental health.

Elder abuse – numbers of calls to the Elder Abuse Hotline and numbers of approaches or cases received by Elder Abuse Response Services.

Rationale: Some older people may have become more vulnerable to elder abuse due to increased family stress (including financial stress) and being unable to leave their home environment.

Calls to the Elder Abuse Hotline this year were lower than in the same period the previous year. Any firm conclusions about these data must await a longer time series.

Housing – number/percentage of older people on the Public Housing Register. Also, data from the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development on older people in motels due to COVID-19 and data from their rental survey.  

Rationale: Reduced incomes may affect some older people’s ability to fund rents and mortgages. Older people are least likely age groups to be in severe housing deprivation and least likely to be on the public housing register.

The number of people aged 65+ on the public housing register continued to increase[7] as did the number of seniors receiving emergency housing grants from MSD

Material hardship – percentage of older people with low material wellbeing from Stats NZ’s Household Labour Force Survey COVID-19 supplement.

Rationale: Material hardship may increase due to reduced employment earnings, reduced income from investments (including interest) and impacts on investment balances (including KiwiSaver).

Seniors are less likely to be in material hardship than younger people, but some are experiencing financial difficulties according to Commission for Financial Capability online survey[8] Ministry of Justice’s COVID-19 Justice Sector Survey[9].

[1] http://www.superseniors.msd.govt.nz/about-superseniors/ageing-population/indicators/better-later-life-indicators.html

[2] This must take into accounthow unemployment is measured in official statistics. To be counted as officially unemployed, a person must have been actively seeking work in the last four weeks and be available to start a job. While the country was in lockdown, fewer people who did not have a job were actively seeking and available for work. As New Zealand moved through less restrictive COVID-19 alert levels, the unemployment rate rose.

[3] These figures exclude sole traders.

[4] People who qualify for NZ Super may be eligible and people on other benefits may choose to switch from a benefit to the Income Relief Payment.

[5] Some caution is needed in comparing these survey results. The GSS collects data across a full year via face-to-face interviews from people aged 15 and over, while the HLFS supplement collects data for the quarter, primarily via phone interviews, from people aged 18 and over.

[6] 2018 data from the GSS, more recent data from Stats NZ’s COVID-19 supplement.

[7] https://www.msd.govt.nz/about-msd-and-our-work/publications-resources/statistics/housing/index.html

[8] CFFC, 2020. Impact of Covid-19 on Financial Wellbeing. https://cffc.govt.nz/news-and-media/news/covid-19-exposing-new-zealanders-financial-vulnerability/.

[9] https://www.justice.govt.nz/justice-sector-policy/research-data/covid-19-justice-sector-survey/

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Music: For Good or Ill.

Doug Wilson

Written by guest blogger, Doug Wilson

There are few people who don’t have happy or sad memories based around music. It appears to be a fundamental, almost primeval emotion. Primitive tribes, unsullied by exposure to the choruses of great music from other civilisations, each have their own music and dances, based on rhythms, drums and singing. We interpret the sounds of whales as songs, even if they might be communication vehicles. Old people remember hit songs of their youth far better than hot music of today. Patients with dementia frequently are roused by musical memories, and temporarily break from their locked in shells.

The power of music. At its best it uncovers deep honest emotions, even many years after an event often recalled in curdling clarity. In June 1968 Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. After the death of his brother Jack it seemed the world desperately needed a new leader of hope, and maybe that was Bobby.

I’d recently met some American Rhodes scholars based at Oxford University. Bobby had just visited them and they were converts. Two day later we had tickets to a concert by the great African American soprano Leontyne Price in the 10,000 seat Albert Hall in London. She was booked to sing with one the great London orchestras. An opening announcement said she was a close friend of Senator Bobby Kennedy, and wished to honour his memory by singing, unaccompanied, 3 spirituals. She asked that there be no applause.

As the huge audience sat on their hands and sniffed tearfully this great opera singer filled the historic hall with her peerless voice. She sang from the very bottom of her soul, tears streaming down her face, the orchestra still and silent behind her, heads bowed. Ten thousand captured by the intertwined magic, drama and tragedy of the event ached to stand and clap. But silence was a far more powerful conclusion. The power of music.

For those of us able to recall the 1960s, there were the phenomena of Elvis Presley and the Beatles. Rock music burst from the steady jolly beat of 1950s pop music, into the wonderful 1960s wild world of rock, and the extraordinary creativity of 4 guys from Liverpool. The impact was global for these overlapping influences. TV, radio and film built them into musical, almost religious cults. From then and since the popular music world has found its stars and super stars.

Longevity is reserved for the very few, like Elton John, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Rolling Stones, Prince, and Bruce Springsteen. Others on records, movies, TV clips and you tube have outlived their lead singer, like AIDS victim Freddie Mercury of Queen, and their visit to Wembley stadium. Some of these older musicians are now star turns as they reprise their great days of decades before. I have friends, 60 years and plus friends, who are Rolling Stone groupies, and try and attend as many international concerts as they can, and love it. Those were their days.

The power of music to bless. It converts most everybody to happy and warm emotions, when the stars align. For the older community these memories don’t disappear; they may fade but play their favourites and the memory banks light up, and smiles and glowing harmony abound. Play for the poor sufferers with dementia and see how they respond. Amazing are the stories of individuals suddenly emerging from the dementia fog, to reprise a tiny view of themselves decades before. Glen Campbell was one of those; he could play and sing, but not recognise close friends, causality from his Alzheimer’s. Play for those who struggle with vision and support their hearing, their major alternative sense.

Various countries’ national anthems can stir the blood, even of their opponents at large sporting events. The French La Marseillaise, and Wales Land of my Fathers sung by 70,000 locals is are classic calls for patriotism, tears and country.

At my high school it was tradition for the entire school to sing the Messiah, the great oratorio of Handel, with the Hallelujah chorus as the star. Five hundred boys, as loud as each was able, a few wonderful voices, many shrill sopranos, the crackling of pubescent voices, the newly minted basses and tenors, the blazing roar of the organ at full blast, and we glowed and loved this thrilling event, boys enthralled and captured with 18 Century religious music. That must have brought in the faithful in the mid-1750s. It certainly still does today around the world.

Once, in the 1990s my wife and I attended a great restaurant in Paris. The maître d, learning we were from New Zealand declared he was a rugby aficionado. Zey recently had ze All blacks to dine. They sang these Mori songs, fabulous. Can u sing? My wife Adele, with her great voice, sang unaccompanied the Maori Po Kare. The restaurant was silent, the boss directing them to hush. Then they customers stood up hollering, cheering with joyful French élan. We were friends of the city. The maître d, with tears in his eyes kissed my wife and thanked her and presented a fine cognac. Who ever suggested the Parisians were not friendly.

The power of music over the generations builds communities of certain ages where they gather and share their emotions, learnt with the common love of music which had burgeoned in their time, their musical highlights, genres and performers. Behind that are the great music of the classical and operatic traditions. Even today an aria like Nessun Dorma from Puccini’s Tosca, and Beethoven symphony 9, the great choral symphony, can attract thousand even hundreds of thousands together to share, love and enjoy.

But the power of music is not always reserved for the good and the joyous. The Nazis in Germany were masters of the huge assemblies, big bands and Wagnerian tributes to supremacy of the Fatherland. William Sargant, a 1960s English psychiatrist, author of a book on brain washing: Struggle for the Mind, proposed that many robust religious groups, laudable music events, but also evil assemblies were brought together by various contrived musical performances and rhythms. He showed films of such disparate groups as Mayfair drug parties, fundamental Christian church services with wailing and speaking in tongues, voodoo rites in Haiti, Nazi rallies and rock bands. Rhythms were a major common factor, but all could engender similar states of ecstasy and escape and, if needed, unsavoury objectives. Ah the power of music.

Music is for everyone, just about. Treasure its power to entertain, to lift spirits when they are low, to move, and to give visible face to deep emotions, and as haunting accompaniment for permanent farewells, where the shared music and emotions tie close friends and loves together for ever.

Thank you to Ryman Healthcare and Doug Wilson.

You can listen to their Ageing for Beginners Podcast at:
https://podcasts.apple.com/nz/podcast/ageing-for-beginners/id1470331734

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Making Shopping more Age-Friendly 2 – Pointers for Shops

Dr. Judith Davey

My previous blog looked at Age-Friendly retailing from the customers’ point of view, reporting on the views of older shoppers. Various countries and urban centres have developed guidelines and checklists aimed at retail businesses to encourage age friendliness, offering them no-cost and low-cost tips to engage with this growing market. Some of the good ideas are looked at below, coming from the City of Joondalup in Australia and Wales in the UK . Again your comments and suggestions are welcomed.

Marketing

Marketing materials should be attractive and inclusive, including older people in images promoting products or services (without stereotyping them – like always showing photos of young-old couples, ignoring the fact that the majority of older people, especially women, are unpartnered). The design of marketing materials should aim to be
easy to read with plenty of space, high contrast colours, 12-point font or higher and in simple language to
ensure the message is clear to a broad audience.
Promote your business as age-friendly, offering senior discounts, which could be linked to the Super Gold Card.

Ambience

Retail premises should be well and evenly lit, especially entrances, exits and hallways. It should be a quiet environment avoiding outside noise and, if music is used, ensuring this is from different eras and styles. Some useful market research could be done to see what pleases older shoppers. Audio loops will assist customers with hearing aids at service counters. Regular “quiet hours” for shoppers are a good idea.
Access Safety, comfort, and visibility

There needs to be clear signage in and around businesses, clearly marking stairs and inclines, ensuring that
pathways and car parks are clearly lit and physically accessible. Cars parks reserved for seniors should be provided and well-marked as well as “disability” spaces.

There should be sturdy handrails in staircases, lifts and ramps, Doors should not be heavy and ideally automatic, allowing time for people with walkers and wheelchairs to safely come in and out.
Floors should be smooth and non-slip. Mats should be level and edges secure so that they do not create a tripping hazard. Edges of rugs can be secured to guard against tripping.

Customer Service

Ensure that service desks are clearly visible so people can ask for help. At least one counter should be accessible for customers using wheelchairs and scooters. Ask for feedback from older customers – What do they like about your business? Do they experience any issues or barriers with staff, products, or environment?

Dementia Friendly

I have written earlier about making environments dementia friendly and this is also an aspect of Age-Friendly retail.
It is very important that retail staff are aware of dementia and Alzheimer’s and how it effects people. They need to offer understanding and reassurance, speaking clearly and calmly, letting the customers take their time and responding to them if they appear to be having difficulty. If someone forgets what you’ve said, repeat it as if you were saying it for the first time. If someone isn’t sure or can’t remember how to do something, offer to do it with them rather than doing it for them.

Visual clues are useful for examples of product options and colour contrast in interior design will help people living with dementia to navigate the business. Additional assistance should be available if someone seems unable to read signs or written information.

There is further information on the Office for Senior website on becoming an age-friendly business.
http://superseniors.msd.govt.nz/about-superseniors/ageing-population/age-friendly-businesses/age-friendly-business.html
In addition, the Age-friendly Business initiative. linked in with the World Health Organisation provides practical information to help businesses become more age-friendly and attract older customers. In collaboration with Alzheimer’s Association, a module on dementia provides information on the detection, treatment and promotion of autonomy for customers with dementia. Participating businesses receive a window sticker with the slogan “We are friendly” and they will be included in an Age-Friendly Business Guide and in the web-based Age-Friendly Places Map.
ihttps://extranet.who.int/agefriendlyworld/afp/age-friendly-business-2/#:~:text=The%20Age%2Dfriendly%20Business%20initiative,assessment%20materials%20to%20participating%20businesses.

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