InSite: Generations project report launch from Health Central NZ on Vimeo.

It’s a fact that as the populations of the industrialised world continue to age, the burden on our health infrastructure will increase well beyond current capacity. There don’t seem to be any ready answers as to how our future society is going to adjust.

It’s also a fact, and an indictment, that in our productivity-obsessed culture, we talk about older people using words like ‘burden’. Those who have transitioned out of the work force so often feel that the world has turned its back on them – that the society they’ve worked to improve has deemed their useful life at an end, and they’ve become invisible.

The goal of the Generations project is a courageous one – the website doesn’t just deal in well-meaning yet non-committal phrases like ‘encouraging conversation’  – they talk about taking steps to actually reduce the social isolation felt by so many, using a “creative and participatory” approach.

Generations began in September 2017, at which point the project’s leaders hadn’t secured any funding. The first phase of the project has been to research the lived experiences of older people, with the goal of identifying insights that capture the reality of senior life, and zeroing in on areas where the project team believe the biggest dents into such a deeply ingrained problem can be made.

A feature of the initiative is that at every stage the project has been – and will continue to be – co-designed by older people, as well as academics, advocates, and “external provocateurs”.

Inconveniently for the rest of the population, our need for connection doesn’t atrophy when we fall off the conveyor belt of modern western life – isolation is now recognised as a health problem that can have a similar impact to smoking, obesity, and high blood pressure.

Although there is plenty of research into the problem going on worldwide, the Generations team recognise that so much of this work takes the form of impenetrably academic research and policy projects, and that it will likely be years before any impact is seen. Of course that doesn’t diminish the importance of such work, but Generations and the social agency Innovate Change that is it’s driving force doesn’t think society can wait that long, at least not to begin talking about possible solutions. Their disruptive approach won’t be limited by any one discipline – the two to four recommendations that the project aims to eventually produce will encompass technology, policy, service, and infrastructure, to name a few possibilities.

At the launch event, the Generations team, led by Innovate Change founding director Simon Harger-Forder, delivered the first phase of the project – the distillation of six months research into nine key insights. These are:

We over-medicalise ageing. “Ageing is increasingly perceived as a ‘disease state’ to be treated, not as a natural life process.

We under-plan for later life. While being financially prepared is important, what would it look like to more intentionally plan for happiness, how we live, and whom we live with?

We marginalise and discriminate against older people. “Many older people we spoke to talked about feeling invisible. They felt they are often treated as if their opinions don’t matter and they have nothing to contribute. What would communities where older people are valued as active and essential citizens look like?”

We ignore the most vulnerable older people. While New Zealand’s superannuation scheme currently provides a universal basic income for over 65’s, inequality leaves many older New Zealanders behind. This gap is only likely to widen as our population ages.

We strip older people of their individuality. “Many older people we spoke to feared the loss of identity and individuality that might come from entering institutional residential environments, where they would lose control over many aspects of their day-to-day lives.”

We underestimate the importance of spirituality. If the thriving are spiritual, what might we learn from them?

We don’t recognise the skills it takes to connect. “How many of us know our neighbours or have opportunities to interact with others in our neighbourhood?”

We’d rather help than value older people. “In our conversations with older people we repeatedly heard that more than anything, they want to feel valued and useful.”

We create housing that alienates older people. Living alone is a significant contributor to social isolation and loneliness for older people.

Dr. Ruth Busch, one of the co-design team behind the Generations project.

When one of the Generations co-designers Dr. Ruth Busch approached the lectern last week, to find that her diminutive stature created something of a microphone issue, Dr. Busch, without missing a beat, simply addressed the audience unplugged – a clue to the fact that this isn’t the first time she’s delivered an impassioned speech on behalf of the marginalised and neglected.

Dr. Busch migrated to New Zealand in 1982, and was an Associate Professor of Law at the University of Waikato for 25 years. An expert in family law, it was Ruth who wrote the report that became the Domestic Violence Act 1995. She is a co-founder of the Hamilton Abuse Intervention Project, and as a member of the Lesbian Elders Village, wants to use her undimmed voice to speak up for older gay women she fears are being driven back into the closet as they get older.

Ruth’s animated, eloquent and wide-ranging speech spoke to the anger and frustration felt by so many like her, when they suddenly find themselves pitied and viewed through a two-dimensional lens. She talked about her experience of a rest home.

“There were people there, especially women, because of the age disparity between women and men, who had run companies, and there was nothing for them, in terms of responsibility. One woman I met who I had been told had been a senior start-up person, in her pre-retirement life, she policed the cookie jar! She decided how many cookies you were going to get.”

After the speeches, InSite had the chance to speak to Dr. Busch, who believes that, beyond finding useful things for older people to do, we should examine our understanding of what ‘useful’ really means.

“[Being an older person is] sometimes like believing you’re Napoleon in a mental hospital, you know? You have to keep saying [to yourself], ‘actually, what I’m doing is of importance, I’m not just in the back-water.

“Work structures your life. It’s that invisibility. You can stand there and not even be seen. I have really seen myself seen as an older person, in other peoples’ eyes – it’s not always a great feeling.”

Simon Harger-Forde is founding director of Innovate Change, and one of those leading the Generations project. He has an 18 year career in social development behind him so far. InSite asked Simon how he imagines approaching issues that seem so much a part of the bedrock of our Western culture, the price we seem to be paying for our neurotic obsession with youth and virility, force, energy, and the fear of crow’s feet – an embarrassed disregard for the elderly that some cultures find horrifying.

Simon says that part of the point of Generations is to show people that if we get together, changing society is something that we can achieve. Right now it’s all about creating momentum, and he’s happy to step up.

“It’s easy to see these issues as really entrenched. The problem with that is that we can become paralysed, and we don’t do anything. What we hope is that we can inspire little bits of action.

“For example, one of the things we’ve been talking about is workplaces. What do workplaces look like that celebrate and include older people? All of us are in work places, and all of us could do something about that. I’m really keen to not make it seem so huge that we’re disabled into inertia.

“What I hope Generations has done [so far] is give us a few starting points.”

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