Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by Age Concern


1.1  Age Concern England (the National Council on Ageing) brings together Age Concern Organisations working at a local level and 100 national bodies, including charities, professional bodies and representational groups with an interest in older people and ageing issues. Through our national information line, which receives 225,000 telephone and postal enquiries a year, and the information services offered by local Age Concern Organisations, we are in day to day contact with older people and their concerns.

1.2  Age Concern England includes the ActivAge Unit which has a number of programmes, including Ageing Well UK, Age Resource, an Intergenerational Network and support for volunteering. Ageing Well UK is a health promotion programme which aims to improve and maintain the health of older people. Its projects include the provision of health shops where mentors give advice on diet, nutrition and local health initiatives.

1.3  The Intergenerational Network brings together younger and older people, promoting mutual understanding and concern. It helps to tackle issues such as ageism between the generations, crime, social exclusion and disadvantage. An example is an original project set up by Age Concern in Warwickshire which has now been running for eight years. Volunteers offer support to targeted disadvantaged children. Citizenship courses are offered in schools exploring age, ageing and community relations to combat negative preconceptions between generations.

1.4  We welcome the opportunity to contribute to the Committee's inquiry into the benefits of technology and how it can be applied to improve the process of ageing. There are many excellent sources of information and expertise on Assistive Technology.[3] In this submission we seek to expand the issue to include older peoples' needs and rights to quality of life, independence and control—interpersonal contact, social life and purposeful social activity being fundamental components of what older people feel contribute to quality of life.


    —    The main factors that promote long healthy life are well known but most depend on individuals' lifestyles; what is missing is knowledge of what affects choices and how to promote healthy lifestyles.

    —    Attitudes towards ageing and self-stereotypes are highly important factors in healthy ageing and this requires more research. Intergenerational contact is key to combating age-related prejudice.

    —    Involving end users (older people) at the early stages of setting research agendas or in early development stages will provide essential, valuable information to researchers and designers.

    —    An interdisciplinary approach to research, design and technology is required, particularly the integration of social science into the other disciplines. This would greatly aid better coordination of research.

    —    Current priorities include better funding for interdisciplinary and user-led research; synthesis and utilisation of existing knowledge and improving the links between research, policy and practice to improve quality of life for older people.


3.1  Although there are links between ageing and the onset of illness, there is a large body of evidence to suggest that very few illnesses are inevitable consequences of ageing, and most are affected by individual behaviour and lifestyles. Ageing is a process which brings gains as well as losses, and recent research shows that attitudes towards the process of ageing, within individuals and within the wider social climate, are perhaps the most important indicators of how successful the ageing process will be.

3.2 The factors that promote good health and longevity in later life are:

—    Physical activity—key in predicting independence and mortality in later life. Disability and infirmity may be largely the result of disuse of muscle rather than the inevitable process of ageing.[4]

—    Having a social role and function—Long-term population-based studies[5] show that social and productive activities are as important as physical activity in reducing the likelihood of illness and institutionalisation. The mechanisms for these effects are unclear, participation in social activities in itself may reflect social competence and being in control of one's life; the benefits of physical activity may derive as much from incidental social and purposeful activity involved. Whatever the mechanism, the two factors are clearly related to better health and the delay of onset of illness.

—    Good housing and living in a safe and pleasant neighbourhood.[6] A key issue in housing is fuel poverty, the UK has a particularly high number of energy inefficient houses. Other issues include the promotion of healthy, active ageing, eg by reducing the risk of falls at home.

—    Neighbourhood issues such as crime and antisocial behaviour3 (or the fear of them), or environmental concerns such as poor paving and litter which can lead to falls, can prevent older people from leaving their houses. This reduces opportunities for social interaction with family, friends, etc which then impacts on mental and physical health.

—    Nutrition—barriers to healthy eating amongst older people include inadequate knowledge of appropriate diets, poor labelling of foods, and affordability and availability of healthy foods3. Age Concern is commissioning research from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to identify and cost the minimum requirements for healthy life in older age. Part of this project will identify a healthy diet for older people and the income required to afford it.

—    Absence of risk factors such as smoking and drinking to excess.

—    Good mental health and well-being—which are affected by all the above factors.

3.3  These factors indicate that biological ageing is greatly affected by psychosocial and economic factors, which depend to some extent on people's choices and behaviour. Adopting healthy choices from a younger age is important, but changing behaviour in later life can also have significant effects on healthy ageing.


Ageism and stereotyping of ageing

4.1  Recent American research,[7] suggests that social stereotyping of ageing and the extent to which it is "internalised" by individuals can have significant effects on longevity. Out of a sample of 660 older people, follow-up showed that people with more positive self-perceptions of ageing, measured up to 23 years earlier, lived 7.5 years longer than those with less positive self-perception of ageing. This effect remained after age, gender, socioeconomic status, loneliness and even functional health were allowed for as confounding factors. This effect is greater than the physiological measures of low systolic blood pressure and cholesterol, and also greater than the independent contribution of lower body mass index, no history of smoking and a tendency to exercise.

4.2  The authors identify that, unlike race and gender stereotypes which people encounter while first developing group identities, people acquire age stereotypes several decades before they themselves become "old". Therefore they are most likely to accept stereotypes without question in earlier life and as they age, will be less able to challenge this stereotyping. Self-stereotypes can operate without older individual's awareness. The effects of this can be mitigated in some groups who can be shielded from stigmatising through, for example, positive intergenerational contact throughout the lifespan. There is evidence to suggest that older deaf people report more positive attitudes toward ageing than do hearing individuals. Older members of the deaf community tend to participate in intergenerational activities to a larger extent, in which they are given equal or higher status. This kind of intergenerational contact may be a source of "insulation" from mainstream negative stereotypes. Personality types may affect receptivity to stereotypes.

4.3  Research is now needed to explore this phenomenon further, including effects of multiple stereotyping on older people from minority groups, together with the factors which can help to mitigate the effects of society-wide denigration of ageing such as intergenerational contact.

The social psychology of ageing

4.4  More research needs to be done exploring social models of ageing. Better understanding of the psychology of prejudice and social stereotyping, and the impacts of these on older people's well-being, capabilities, performance at tasks and longevity would be useful for policy development in all areas affecting older people, particularly in health and social care, and employment, education and training.

Mental health in ageing

4.5  The potential to provide a cure or delay onset of dementia would have an enormous impact on the quality of older people's lives. In addition, depression is the most common psychiatric disorder in later life, 10-15 per cent of the population aged 65 years or over suffer from significant depressive symptoms. Age Concern and the Mental Health Foundation have launched a three-year Inquiry into mental health and well-being in later life. An initial part of this Inquiry has been a review of the literature and policy on the promotion of mental health and well-being.

Choosing health

4.6  Research is now needed on what affects lifestyle choices across the lifespan and into later life, and how people can be encouraged to adopt healthy choices. The role of technology in providing accurate information and supporting individuals to maintain healthy diet and activity regimes could be explored.


4.7  A better understanding of diversity in the older population is required among researchers. The ESRC's Growing Older Programme,[8] which recently came to a close, highlights many important issues of diversity in the older population. Other important, key questions are: why do women live longer? What are the racial differences in ageing? Which are biological factors and which are cultural, lifestyle-related? Personality characteristics may also be important when it comes to attitudes towards own ageing, susceptibility to ageism, and differences in coping strategies.

Promising approaches to research

4.8  The breaking down of barriers between disciplines when it comes to addressing ageing issues in research is welcomed. Ageing is a process which is biological, but also psychological and social. Scientists and designers need to work with social scientists, psychologists and ergonomists to provide services and products which will be useful to older people. The objectives behind EPSRC's EQUAL (Extending Quality Life) initiative and the ESRC's new programme The New Dynamics of Ageing, are welcomed as approaches to interdisciplinary work.

4.9  Participatory approaches to research and development which involve the end user (in this case, older people) are badly required. It can be too easy to "over-technologise" problems and solutions, without considering the psychosocial aspects or needs of the user. We welcome the development of research bodies which are focussing on these new approaches which involve older people as equal partners in research, for example the Cambridge Interdisciplinary Research Centre on Ageing (CIRCA). Features of CIRCA's research strategy are; an interdisciplinary approach, a life course perspective, emphasis on positive well-being and involvement of older people in setting the agenda.


5.1  As research from the Growing Older Programme and other studies confirms, the factors that sustain quality of life for older people (adequate income, living in a safe neighbourhood, practical services, having social roles and participating in voluntary and social activities) are also likely to improve health and physical functioning. These are identified by older people themselves as key aspects of their quality of life.


The ESRC Growing Older programme of research provide useful recent data on many aspects of diversity including gender differences; the impact of partnership status; differences between ethnic groups in terms of biological ageing; intersection of social status/other factors.


7.1  An interdisciplinary and participatory approach is key in the efforts of designers and technologists to improve the quality of life of older people. Social scientists and, in particular, older people themselves should be involved and consulted, as has been identified in the EQUAL initiative by EPSRC. In general, good design should be inclusive for all, and specific "assistive technologies" considered only when inclusive solutions are not possible.

7.2  There are many examples of high- and low-technologies which maintain independence and afford older people a greater level and sense of control over their lives. The important factors to consider are their usability, their acceptability to older people and the likely effects on their social functioning and sense of control over their lives.

Existing and new technologies

7.3  A recent report[9] explores the costs of providing assistive technology to enable older people to live independently compared with what might be required in terms of human care. It looks at the adaptation of buildings, including Smart Home technology whereby different devices interact and are controlled by a central computer; and at Assistive Technology (AT) where there is confusion about terminology, lack of information for users and for housing providers and staff, and a certain need for demystification of the concept. The report concluded:

—    "There were considerable variations in AT provision between respondents.

—    There is a need to listen to older people. They are quite clear about their needs, but very much less clear about what AT is there to help them, how they can access it and what they have to pay.

—    Older people want to be able to control as many day-to-day routine activities as possible and AT can help them with this.

—    Older people welcome AT when it addresses a FELT need.

—    Older people have variable access to AT and therefore variable help from AT. They often have unmet needs.

—    Installation of AT is not usually a problem, but the on-going reliable operation of the AT is essential."


8.1  Research could be better coordinated for the benefit of older people. Although recent initiatives have begun to address the problem, coordination and true interdisciplinary research is still problematic. It is difficult to fund except through specific initiatives such as those mentioned above and the Research Assessment Exercise still does not specifically reward academic research bodies sufficiently for the considerable extra time and resources required to carry out work across disciplines.

8.2  If sufficient time, funding and commitment are not given to involving older people in research and development, initiatives to do so often fail. For example, EPSRC's EQUAL (Extending Quality Life) initiative set out to promote links between academics and organisations that provide or represent a service user perspective. This was thought to be a very positive approach. In practice, however Age Concern staff who attended initial meetings felt that user involvement was seen as an "add-on" within the programme, there was insufficient funding for participation of voluntary organisations representing users which was not part of the core research funds, and end users were not involved enough in the early stages of setting the research agenda, which was done by the groups of academics.

8.3  Involving end users (older people) requires considerable resources in terms of time, money and commitment on the part of researchers to hear the viewpoints being expressed by older people. Research funders are not always aware of or sympathetic to resources required, and researchers themselves do not always appreciate what it will mean to relinquish some control over their domain.


9.1  Initiatives toward greater collaboration between disciplines are welcomed. Further priorities would be:

—    focusing on synthesis and dissemination of existing knowledge;

—    prioritising a user-centred, interdisciplinary approach (which especially included social science) to new research or development of new design ideas;

—    further exploring the link between research, policy and practice, facilitating a more "knowledge-based" approach to policy-making and putting more resource into applying the current knowledge from research into scientific and technological development;

—    preventitive strategies to reduce or delay onset of illness;

—    good design which is inclusive, specialist design only where it really is required.

9.2  As mentioned previously, the bio-medical model or disease model of ageing has received more research funding and academic interest than other models. For example we now have better evidence on what is likely to maintain good health throughout the life span, but very little information on how people make choices over their health-related behaviour and how to influence them to make better choices which emphasise positive well-being.


10.1  Research could be much better utilised within policy-making, particularly in the sphere of social science but also in other disciplines. Barriers to effective uptake of research information into policy making are complex and deep-rooted. The Australian experience[10] yields the following barriers to the utilisation of research to inform policy, which summaries UK experience also:

—    "A complex bureaucratic and political environment, which may impact on the take-up of evidence-based research.

—    Research can involve a lengthy process and the research and planning cycles need to be synchronised.

—    Researcher's limited knowledge and understanding of the policy-making context means that research findings often have little impact on policy.

—    The problem of information overload, translation of information and difficulties in accessing and sharing information. This raises the need to ensure that overload is minimised.

—    Overcoming barriers to cross-governmental approaches to Evidence-Based Policy Making (EBPM).

—    The absence of an overarching framework for EBPM and the need to strengthen the long-term strategic planning approach."


The potential for good, inclusive design to greatly improve lives is enormous but is balanced by the risk of increasing use of technology to socially isolate older people and result, paradoxically, in their feeling even less in control over their lives and environments. This needs to be carefully managed through holistic, interdisciplinary and user-led approaches.

September 2004

3   Eg Back

4   "Effects of physical activity on health status in older adults", Annual Review of Health, 1992, reported in Choosing Health response. Back

5   Age Concern, (unpubl), "Preventive Service for Older People: evidence from the research-Research Briefing No 6", February 2004, Research and Development Unit, Age Concern England, London. Back

6   Age Concern (unpubl), "Age Concern's response to the Department of Health consultation, Choosing Health?", May 2004, Policy Unit, Age Concern England, London. Back

7   Levy, B R, Slade, M D, et al, (2002), "Longevity Increased by Positive Self-Perceptions of Ageing", Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, (2), 261-70. Back

8   ESRC, "Growing Older Programme-Project Summaries", Swindon: ESRC. Back

9   King's College London and the University of Reading (2004), "Introducing Assistive Technology into the Existing Homes of Older People: Feasibility, Acceptability, Costs and Outcomes", Institute of Gerontology, King's College, London. Back

10   Bartlett, H and Findlay, R, (2003) "Linking the Ageing Research and Policy Agenda: towards a strategy for Queensland", University of Queensland Australasian Centre on Ageing. Back

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