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Ageing well in Gateshead (2019)

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Alice Wiseman, Gateshead Director of Public Health

Why is ageing well so hard?

As I started writing my annual report this year it dawned on me that I wasn't writing about something that was happening to other people and in fact I was, writing about things that were happening to me. 

Everyone is ageing in their own way and it is of course a natural consequence of being alive. 

My report this year, "Ageing Well in Gateshead" takes a broad view of some of the challenges that face us as individuals and communities as we age. A consequence of the success we have had in extending the life expectancy of our population is that we now face health and social challenges that would not have been recognised 50 years ago.

My report illustrates how ageing well is complex and different for every person. It is vital that we recognise this and respond by influencing the things that can improve life for all. To be able to live in a community that is supportive, safe, accessible, non-discriminatory and caring, is crucial to good health.

Throughout the development of the report I have been struck by the negative way that ageing is portrayed and the stigma that is associated with it - for example, we are encouraged through advertising, to buy anti-ageing creams, we are pressured to 'stay younger, for longer'.

I have also reflected on the age old saying; 'you're only as old as you feel'. What is 'old?' Who does it apply to? Who decides when you're 'old?' 

I don't view myself as old, but I am reliably informed by my 14-year-old son that I am already that. I loved it when '90 year-old Jack' (who sings in the choir of the Gateshead Older People's assembly) was asked what he was doing one day, replied, 'I'm going to sing to the old people in the care home'. Jack's numerical age was irrelevant to his perception of what 'old' was. 

To some extent I accept that as we age it is inevitable that we will face different and increasing health challenges. However, the evidence that we can delay when many of those health challenges start is indisputable.

We, as individuals, communities and services, need to focus on ageing well from a much earlier point so being 'old' doesn't just happen to us. To do that well we need to improve health literacy across our communities. Health literacy describes the combination of personal and social resources required by individuals and communities to access, understand, evaluate and use information and services to make decisions about health. Improving health literacy will encourage individuals and communities to better self-manage their health and well-being. 

A central theme of my report has been to understand more about what 'ageing well' means to people in our community. I wanted to know what kind of advice people in Gateshead might give to the next generation. The project 'a letter to my younger self' challenged my views of what ageing well means to our residents. I expected lots of practical advice on staying fit and eating well and, whilst there was some of this, there was a real focus on self-worth and the importance of friends, family and strong social connections. The letters I read made me question whether we have overcomplicated our response to changing health and care needs without considering the basic need for self-worth, friendship and a sense of inclusion. I am convinced that we need to think much more carefully about how we do more to support and facilitate sustainable, healthy, connected and caring communities. 

As with every aspect of health and well-being there are sharp inequalities in ageing well, from when a life limiting condition begins, to the age we are when we die and even how and where we die. Consequently, as with every aspect of improving the public's health, it is necessary to understand the relationship between ageing well and the wider determinants of health. We need to consider the impact of income inequality on those essential parts of life that keep us healthy and well. It is unacceptable that people are ageing in our borough without the resources to heat their home, put food on the table and participate in an active social life. We must strive to ensure everyone has opportunities to age well in the way they want and in the community of their choosing. This will mean that we must understand the nuances for particular communities and do different things in different places in Gateshead. 

In doing all of this we must not lose focus on the importance of family, friendships and opportunities for social connections - I have heard loud and clear that this is the single most important thing for our local people!

We have already committed to 'making Gateshead a place where everyone thrives' This is absolutely the right thing to do. We have pledged not just as a council but as a health and care system to:

  1. Put people and families at the heart of everything we do
  2. Tackle inequality so people have a fair chance
  3. Support our communities to support themselves and each other
  4. Invest in our economy to provide sustainable opportunities for employment, innovation and growth across the borough
  5. Work together and fight for a better future for Gateshead

I truly welcome the commitment to these pledges as it provides a strong foundation for a borough in which everyone is supported to age well. We want to help our communities not to just survive, but to flourish, prosper and succeed. Our commitment to ageing well in Gateshead needs to stretch across the life course.

All of this requires an approach which influences strategic policy, working with all our partners, to ensure that Gateshead really is a place where everyone, regardless of their circumstance will thrive.

Read the full report. (PDF) [6MB]