Four key takeaways from the British Society of Gerontology’s annual conference
This year’s annual conference of the British Society of Gerontology highlighted the importance of understanding how issues including COVID-19 and climate change impact older people.
Our Senior Evidence Manager, Dr Aideen Young, reflects on what she learned across the three days.
Earlier this month I attended the British Society of Gerontology’s annual conference at the University of East Anglia (UEA). The society was founded almost 50 years ago as a forum for researchers and other individuals interested in the circumstances of older people, and in how knowledge about ageing and later life can be expanded and improved. Titled ‘Inclusive Ageing - a Society for All’, this year’s conference focused on hearing the voices of older people. This means including older people at all stages of research, not merely as subjects, providing person-centred care, and paying attention to the inequalities in how people experience later life.
Here are my four key takeaways from the conference:
Ageism is a hot topic in the research community
I was pleased to have the opportunity to present the research that Ageing Better has conducted to inform our upcoming nationwide campaign to change attitudes to ageing. But this was far from the only mention of ageism at the conference. Ageism came up time and again, with researchers pointing out the existence of ageism in various places, health systems, home and care technologies, end-of-life care, and even in the research itself. It’s clear that ageism is front and centre among the research community focusing on ageing and later life.
The pandemic had a huge impact on older people and on how we perceive ageing
There were several sessions at this year’s conference that focused on how COVID-19 has affected older adults, ageing, and our perceptions of getting older. Representatives from Manchester Urban Ageing Research Group presented their new book ‘Covid-19, Inequalities and Older People’, which discusses research findings on the lives and experiences of older people during the pandemic.
The research advocates for community-centred approaches and improvements to social infrastructure, both to reverse the social damage done by the pandemic and to build resilience ahead of future public health emergencies.
The research also delves into how the pandemic exacerbated inequalities for groups of older people, especially those from low-income communities and ethnic minority groups.
Inequality in experiences of ageing and outcomes in later life was a recurring theme throughout the conference. For example, inequality can emerge due to the impact of major later life events such as the onset of dementia, bereavement, forced migration and exclusion, as well as the housing history of people from low socioeconomic backgrounds, all of which have a significant influence on wellbeing across our lives.
Older adults’ contributions are vital in tackling climate change
American sociologist Professor Karl Pillemer gave a thought-provoking presentation on how older people are a powerful but underutilised resource for tackling climate change. He argues that expanding and promoting opportunities for older people to take part in climate action is essential. Older people often have more time for civic engagement and volunteering, as well as relevant experience developed throughout their lives. Environmental organisations need to recognise the opportunity that older people present and maximise the use of older people’s talents. Research from the Centre for Ageing Better details how volunteering opportunities can be made accessible to all ages. Indeed, the physical, personal, organisational and structural barriers to volunteering for older volunteers were the theme of another symposium chaired by Katherine Deane of UEA.
Environmental organisations need to recognise the opportunity that older people present and make the most of older people’s talents.
Co-production is powerful – in the right hands
Striking examples of research projects that give older people an active role were showcased at this year’s conference. Projects ranged from working with older co-researchers to explore how arts and culture can be made more accessible to minoritised people to involving older people in the early design stages of a tool to detect loneliness. The impact such projects can have when done well was clear. However, there were also some frank discussions about the problems that arise if – for example – the language and physical spaces used for those conversations with older people aren’t appropriate. Honest discussion about the need to be aware of where research methods in the past have damaged relationships between academic institutions and communities, and how to rebuild a sense of trust, was also seen as vital.