Covid-19 and ageing better: life after ‘normal’

29 September 2020

By Anna Dixon (Chief Executive of the Centre for Ageing Better)

At the Centre for Ageing Better, we work to ensure that people approaching later life can live healthier and more active lives, be in good quality work for longer, and live in safe, accessible homes and communities where it is easier to build and maintain close connections as well as wider everyday contact.

Despite the unprecedented and life-changing events of the past few months, these remain our priorities. In fact, the pandemic has highlighted how important these things are, prompting us to think differently about our lives – how we interact with our home and where our home limits us, how we fit into our communities and the quality of our interaction with them, and the integral nature of work for our lives and wellbeing. And of course health – for some, Covid-19 has been a wake-up call to the importance of good health and has driven us to get fitter and healthier. For others, the opposite has been true, with many people reporting lifestyle behaviours that contribute to poor health worsening in lockdown.

All these themes were described in our recent joint report with Ipsos MORI, which showed that lockdown has been tough for some, with deteriorating health due to more unhealthy behaviours, and more than two in five in fear their finances will worsen in the year to come. But there have also been some positive changes, with many appreciating the time spent with family and helping their communities, a better work-life balance, and time to reflect on their careers and futures.

Far from going back to ‘normal’, many people report that they want the world to be different post-pandemic. Certainly at the Centre for Ageing Better we agree – for us, the problems highlighted and exacerbated by coronavirus have made us determined to push harder for changes to improve the lives of older people. Here are a few key themes we have been exploring in our work in recent months.

Ageism

Ageism is a major barrier for older people. It can affect job prospects, access to healthcare or services, and financial security. In collaboration with Age-Friendly Manchester, we are working with market researchers ComRes and equality and human rights charity Equally Ours to examine how ageing and demographic change are talked about in society, with the aim of shifting to a new, more positive narrative. Just before the lockdown back in March we published our first  report from this project, ‘Doddery but dear’, which examined language and stereotypes around ageing and revealed one in three people in the UK have experienced age prejudice or age discrimination. We saw some real-life examples after lockdown in traditional and social media, with flippant comments about older people dying and blanket bans based on age as debate raged about how to tackle COVID-19. We are continuing to work hard to shift the narrative around ageing; in September, we will release a paper examining the discourse and narratives about ageing across online news, social media, Government, advertising, charity and health and social care.

Healthy ageing

Healthy ageing has always been a focus of our work, but the greater threat posed by COVID-19 for people with various risk factors highlighted the necessity for renewed government and individual focus on keeping healthy as we get older. Through our partnership with Public Health England we have been able to influence official guidance such as the Falls Consensus Statement, Healthy Ageing Consensus Statements and the Chief Medical Officer’s physical activity guidelines. During the coronavirus crisis, we supported a new booklet aimed at encouraging older adults to get active in the comfort of their home during the pandemic. We have since started two research projects to understand more about the diversity of experiences of people in mid-life who are physically inactive, and how we can support people in mid-life to take up active travel, or to maintain or increase their levels of active travel.

Fulfilling work

One of the most devasting and potentially longest-lasting effects of COVID-19 will be the economic effects, including job losses. With our work on the experience of older job seekers we are creating an evidence base to make back to work support for this group more effective and ensure that provision for older job seekers is on the policy agenda. Evidence shows that the oldest and youngest are hit hardest by job losses and, while being out of work at any stage of your life is bad, the impact on older workers can be devastating. We know, for instance, that workers over the age of 50 have a higher chance of becoming permanently unemployed after losing their job, compared with younger people. Our recent report, ‘A mid-life employment crisis’, examined how COVID-19 will affect the job prospects of older people, and sets out the steps that the government can take to support older workers to prevent long-term unemployment.

Safe and accessible housing

The introduction of lockdowns meant the majority of people were, and perhaps still are, spending significantly more time in their homes. But around 10 million people have spent lockdown in a home that presents a threat to their health and safety. Our ‘Home and dry’ report exposed the poor condition of England’s current housing stock, and we have since launched The Good Home Inquiry.  This is an evidence-based analysis of England’s housing policies to determine the causes of, and solutions to, the poor quality of so much of our current housing.

Connected communities

The final area of our work is ‘connected communities’.  We have helped grow the UK Network of Age Friendly Communities so that today it covers some 22 million people across the UK. Our team has engaged with people and institutions across the country to help them take action to make their own areas more age-friendly.

Last year, in partnership with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), we received grant-funding to pilot, develop and share new approaches on age-friendly and inclusive volunteering. One of the projects, Sustain’s Growing Connections, has launched a toolkit to help community food growing spaces support volunteers of all ages – particularly crucial in the wake of a lockdown which prevented many people from participating in their usual volunteering activities.

Conclusion

The coronavirus has revealed many vulnerabilities about ageing in our society and what needs to be changed. Our Centre was already focused on these issues, but the crisis has sharpened the questions of our four priority areas and encouraged us to work even harder to achieve our mission of a society where everyone can enjoy their later life. Through our research and work to help put change into practice, we will continue to take action today for all our tomorrows.

Visit the hub of the social science community’s response to COVID-19.

Anna Dixon is Chief Executive of the Centre for Ageing Better. The Centre for Ageing Better is a charitable foundation, funded by the National Lottery Community Fund. Our vision is a society where everyone enjoys later life. We create change in policy and practice informed by evidence and work with partners across England to improve employment, housing, health and communities.

The perspectives expressed in these commentary pieces represent the independent views of the authors, and as such they do not represent the views of the Academy or its Campaign for Social Science.

This article may be republished provided you place the following statement and link at the top of the article: This article was originally commissioned and published by the Campaign for Social Science as part of its COVID-19 programme.