We live in an extraordinary time: increasing numbers of us are living longer than ever imagined before. It is a major achievement of modern science and healthcare. The tough part of longevity is working out how to ensure those extra years are spent happy and financially secure and living independently engaged in activities we value.
Anyone with grandparents or older parents has seen that survival until a later age exposes people to vulnerabilities that can make the ingredients for a happy life a challenge to achieve. As a society, we cannot slack off in acknowledging and responding to these challenges.
The costs of looking after a rising number of older people raise serious concerns about the sustainability of current provisions of care, especially when there are competing claims on the limited resources of a country.
It is into this context that the British charity Age UK has launched its Index of Well-being in Later Life, an authoritative reporting on what matters most for a good life in old age.
The index identifies how older people are doing in different aspects of their lives under five key areas – social, personal, health, financial and environmental. The knowledge it generates should take us a step closer to achieving greater well-being in later life, whoever we are and whatever our circumstances may be. The index is calculated using data from close to 15,000 individuals. The methods and interpretations have been checked in consultations with older people and experts.
First, what do we mean by well-being? Well-being refers to the happiness and life satisfaction of an individual. It points to a stock of personal, familial, and community resources that help individuals cope well when things go wrong. Well-being is a state in which an individual is financially comfortable, healthy and engaged in meaningful activities.
There is good news and bad news: let’s start with the latter. Age UK’s index identifies the cohort of older people with low levels of well-being. And it is a big group – almost 3m older people in the UK are deemed to have low well-being.
From a practical perspective this group has a similar identity print: they are very likely to live on their own, do not have a strong friendship base and are largely disengaged from their local community. The vast majority have a long-standing illness or disability and are financially poor.
Counting your blessings
More positively the report provides evidence of what does work to enhance well-being. The index provides a dashboard of about 40 indicators of well-being in later life. You can see how the factors are weighted in the chart below. If you are approaching old age or have relatives for whom this is relevant, you might like to consider where you stand right now.
Among the key factors in your happiness in later years is an active social life. This might include going to a cinema, museum, historical site, taking part in arts activities, events or play, being member of a social or sports club, or being active in a community or voluntary group. What they all share is a social element which prevents isolation and loneliness – feelings very destructive for a state of well-being for all, but particularly for older people.
Who we live with, whether we connect with younger generations, and whether or not we have good cognitive skills are also strong determinants. It is interesting that factors such as good health or money are important, but not to the same extent as being socially engaged.
What about if you end up caring for a partner? Well, a higher intensity of obligations for family members does have a negative effect, and lower intensity of help and caring has a positive effect. It’s not totally black and white: caring obligations in general can offer a sense of purpose. But it is damaging for other things such as maintaining a job when care duties become onerous.
One other factor to pull out of the data is that physical activity is very important to well-being along with an open attitude to trying things out and a positive outlook towards an active and engaged life. Sound advice for any age, you might think.
The really critical point here is just how important the social circle becomes for well-being among older people. According to the Age UK’s WILL index, it counts for about a third of individual well-being. People can stomach poor health and financial poverty if they enjoy secure networks of family, friends and community.
It is perhaps these individuals who hold the key to understanding how well-being can be maximised. Many of them are older than 70, emphasising how extreme old age is no barrier to experiencing happiness in later years.
So how can we maximise that feeling of being part of the wider world? It is true that it is here where cuts in central and local government funding for older people act as a crucial obstacle. It affects provision of community and public services, and a particular consequence is the limiting of communal spaces for older people to socialise, participate and access essential healthcare and social care.
The clear message for government is just how crucial it is to sustain decent public services: without a local bus, for example, older people without alternative arrangements are forced to stay at home and become cut off. Often, those who are struggling most have lived in deprived areas with all that brings. And now a drastic lack of social care and hard-pressed health services diminishes their lives still further and undermines their resilience to illness and disability. An ageing population need not be an unhappy one. They deserve better and we must do more to help them.