Active Ageing and Disability

I am angry, I am very angry.

‘Active Ageing’ is the buzz expression these days. Mention the magic words and short-term projects will be funded, academic research will be supported and women who want a contemplative and quiet life will feel guilty.

I believe that the expression was introduced by the WHO about people over 60 years of age and has been taken up by the EU and other organisations. What are the ageist assumptions that underpin the Active Ageing concept? I do not know about men, or other countries and I talk from an 80 years old Londoner’s point of view. I know that fit and healthy old women do not sit doing nothing all day. Some are still paid for their work, the majority work for no pay: they look after their grandchildren, they are carers for parents or partners, they volunteer for hundreds of charities, hospitals, hospices, schools, churches, synagogues, mosques, they take courses or lead courses. They write, they sing, they paint.
They tend their gardens and allotments and care for the environment and campaign for peace and justice. And some have earned the right to choose not to be ‘productive’. Fit and healthy women do not need help in being ‘active’. I sometimes think that they would benefit from help in slowing down.

In the field of education I am angry because Adult Education courses where old and young adults learned together have been severely curtailed for lack of funds and new courses are funded specially for the ‘old’ to be active – very often without provisions for the disabled old.

Quoted in Age-Friendly-London Report: “Older people are living with disabilities and longstanding illnesses for a greater proportion of their life, although this varies with social class, ethnicity, gender and location. At age 65 men are now expected to live with disability for 7.9 years, women 9.9 years (ONS 2014a).” I am angry because the Active Ageing campaign does not address this fact and seems to me to concentrate on the fit and healthy.

There are no courses on living with impaired hearing or vision. There are no courses in adapting to creeping disabilities. There are no courses in adapting to the changing relationship in couples when one becomes disabled. There are no courses on how to talk to your doctor and learn about the medication prescribed. I only know of one course on living with a chronic illness. And apart from the growth of independently organised Death Cafes I know of no courses about death.

Active Ageing? Yes, of course. Give the old the means and they will need no help to be active. State-of-the-art hearing aids for the hard of hearing that is one of the causes of isolation. Mobility scooters for all who want one. Local Community Centres with good transport and facilities for the disabled that will provide daily social contacts.

I am angry because the problem of isolation and mental deterioration is not solved by a befriender visiting once a week even if there are caring relatives who can visit sporadically Sheltered accommodation, care homes, nursing homes are of an appalling standard unless you are extremely rich.

Yes Active Ageing: Fund community hubs, adult education, local activities, adequate transport, meeting spaces, age-mixed housing areas with cultural activities. We are social animals and need daily human contact however superficial.


This week is Death Awareness week and yesterday I went for tea to the death cafe at St. Joseph Hospice Hackney. I met there three of my friends and we were joined at our table  by three other women.

This is not a report but simply a note. When I used to go out with Elizabeth my friend, now deceased, I was sometimes embarrassed by the way she made a point of telling the organisers if the hard-of-hearing were not catered for. Now that my hearing is failing I understand her.

There was abundant tea, coffee and lovely cakes in one of the Education rooms  of the hospice. We were welcomed and introduced to some members of the staff and told that Death Cafes were becoming more established in London.  We sat around the tables and talked.  We talked at length about funerals and briefly about assisted dying, hospices, last days of life, in a more or less personal way.  I did miss some of the contributions but it is difficult to ask people more than once to project their voice.

It is a shame that there was no summing up. I was curious to know what were  the subjects at the other tables.  We were asked what we felt about the name of Death Cafe as a name for these meetings.  A majority of people approved of it.

I was clearly the older at our table yesterday and I was surprised to know that one woman said that the only funeral she ever attended was her father’s.  After my friend’s funeral last week I realised that I had a special folder for ‘Order of Service’ booklets. This morning I counted the number of funerals I attended in my life. They amounted to 22*. The deceased were all close family relations and friends. I suppose that I come from a generation where families were not as dispersed as they are now and that I have reached an age when my contemporaries are dying.

5 of us decided to meet again to speak about death.


*2 sets of parents, 6 uncles and aunts, 2 sister/sister-in-law,  2 cousins,  7 friends, 1 niece .


At the age of 80 I find I am attending funerals quite often and at the last one it occurred to me how like a performance the rituals are. There are religious ones with pre determined scripts and performers. These vary according to the religion of the deceased or rather their family’s. But more and more they vary in genre and form. One followed the director’s – in this case the deceased – directions faithfully. She had instructed how her funeral ceremony should be performed in minute detail: who would speak, the lines they would read, the poem they would declaim and the song they would sing. Some funerals feature the deceased as the heroine/hero of their own life as seen from different points of view. I was specially touched by the testimonies of two carers who looked after the 100 years old woman in the last years of her life. The soundtrack is as varied as the people, hymns, well-known music for the circumstance or even popular songs sang by the whole gathering. The testimonies can be heartbreaking when the performer is overcome by grief and cannot continue. More often even the testimonies are stereotyped: a lot about how great the person was with a hint of an anecdote to underline a human imperfection and elicit a smile or laugh of recognition. At one funeral some of the testimonies were so well written that they were applauded. Cremation and burial differ in form. At a West Indian burial ceremony a bottle of rum was circulated and the grave was filled up by male members of the family.

Very often in the case of people dying in their old age this is an occasion for long-lost friends and relatives to meet again and catch up with each other. The meeting before the ceremony is chatty, the reminiscences are not always about the deceased.

It is this public/private contrasting aspects that strike me every time. My feelings about death have been shaped in my very early childhood. Although as children we were not included in the proceedings or were even positively excluded, my memories are vivid. What I remember is my mother and aunts wearing all black for the day. Some even wore black for the whole year. Men wore a black armband. I remember walking with my mother and aunts and on passing a woman wearing black in the street the sentence was etched in my brain ‘Do you know who she has lost?”. The use of the concept of losing somebody intrigued me. Although not living in a close community to this day I think that wearing something to signal that the person is in mourning is a good idea.   I remember the family sitting on the floor for days and a stream of people visiting to share their grief and make the time easier to bear. I remember that they were offered sweet cakes with the traditional coffee.

Most of all I remember the privacy of the event and I find it cruel that it is the custom nowadays for the bereaved to talk publicly to an audience who often barely knew the dead person. I find it incomprehensible that on television the bereaved are asked ‘How do you feel about the loss of your mother, your child, your friend?’ I find it incomprehensible that masses of people mourn a celebrity as if they were personally connected.

A film comes to mind. Alan Rickman’s The Winter Visitor that I need to view again and write about in my film blog.  How is death, bereavement, and grief portrayed in films?