Whiteley Foundation Blog: It’s never too late to redesign our future

21st December 2020

Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843. The story of miserable and greedy Ebenezer Scrooge, who hates Christmas is familiar to everyone. Making appearances on stage, television, film, and in literature for over a hundred years, the story has captivated the hearts and imaginations of generations. For Scrooge, the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future paint a bleak picture. If ghosts of Ageing Past, Present and Future were to visit us this Christmas Eve, what journey would we be taken on?

The Ghost of Ageing Past

The Ghost of Ageing Past takes us back to the hardship and social inequality depicted in Charles Dickens’ famous novels. The industrial era made way for workhouses, housing destitute people who had no means of supporting themselves. The conditions were adverse and unsanitary. It was during this time, that the founder of The Whiteley Homes Trust, William Whiteley, dubbed the “Universal Provider” made his fortune. Although not known as a philanthropist during his lifetime, upon his death in 1907 he bequeathed £1,000,000 (equivalent to approx. £120,000,000 in 2020) which secured land in Surrey for building houses of, “… substantial character, useful design and well ventilated and drained for aged poor persons of sound mind and good character”. Whiteley Village, as it became, was the largest such project of its time and provided security for over 500 vulnerable older people.

The Ghost of Ageing Present

The Ghost of Ageing Present brings us to the modern-day phenomenon of longevity. Life expectancy increases from 47 years during Charles Dickens’ time, to the current average age of 87. Unfortunately, for many, the additional years accrued are experienced in poor health. Co-morbidities (someone with more than one chronic health condition), dementia and frailty result in a diminished quality of life. The Social Care Act is like the proverbial can that has been kicked down the road by numerous governments and politicians. John Butler, the US geriatrician who coined the term ageism, was prophetic when he described ageing as the “neglected stepchild of the lifecycle”. The crisis in care homes during COVID exposed the snag in the fabric of society, with types of dementia such as  Alzheimer’s disease being the most common pre-existing condition among COVID deaths. As social care funding has progressively decreased over the years, the health of a population can tell us a lot about the functioning of that society.

The Ghost of Ageing Future

The Ghost of Ageing Future brings the statistics of demographers to fruition.  It is Christmas of 2035. Having experienced economic setbacks in 2008 and 2020, a move from defined benefit to defined contribution pension funds and a struggle to get onto the property ladder, Generation Xers are grappling with living longer on less. As the UK population has grown, the fastest increase in numbers has been the aged 85 and over, expanding from 1.9million in 2020 to 3.5million in 2035. In the same period, there has also been a steep increase in the number of people over 85 living on their own. Having grown from 573, 000 to 1.4million. Older people in 2035 are facing increased risk of financial insecurity, lack of familial support and loneliness.

It’s not yet dawn

Like Scrooge, there’s still time to get it right, to give back to our community, to focus on what’s best for all, instead of just oneself. This Christmas will certainly be a time of contemplation, and the ringing in of the New Year will provide a chance to reflect on our past, assess our present and redesign our future.

The UK Research and Innovation’s Healthy Ageing Challenge’s goal is to ensure people can enjoy at least five extra healthy, independent years of life by 2035, by breaking down the silos between government, charities, researchers and business. A new generation of social entrepreneurs have the potential to seize the opportunity of supporting older people by creating economic and societal value.

In How to be a Good Ancestor, Roman Krznaric proposes that addressing these issues requires us to adopt long-term thinking in a short-term world. Originating in Japan, the Future Design process is a grassroots level strategy which asks residents to picture themselves at their current age, but several generations in the future. The results are astounding. Residents favour more transformative plans when they imagine how the decisions they make today are going to impact the lives of future generations.

The British Society of Gerontology (BSG) celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2021. The theme for the BSG’s conference in July is Ageing: Past, Present and Future. The ageing research community is taking strides towards becoming more inclusive, innovative and focusing on co-production with older people and capacity building of researchers from BAME communities. In nurturing the future gerontologists of tomorrow, the famous last words spoken by Tiny Tim in the Christmas Carol perfectly conveys the potential of ageing in the UK… “God bless us, Every one!”

Main image credit: ‘Role Reversal’ by Graham Marsden | Photocrowd photo contests

William Whiteley
Founder, The Whiteley Homes Trust


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