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The Importance Of Work and Aspirations As We Age

Posted: 02/10/14, Author: Madeline Cooper-Ueki

Work took me last week to Australia, giving me the rare opportunity to spend a couple of days with my 93 year old grandmother in Sydney. Conversations with my gran ranged from the usual family updates, to her sharing how she continues to be an active and socially engaged woman despite the challenges of an almost total loss of sight.

She attends a book group, holds a leading role on a committee and goes out regularly with an older persons’ social group, although much to her disdain, politics is off the agenda in that setting. Importantly, she does have support when she needs it and described her relationships with two women, one a family friend and another from the local neighbourhood centre who help her read and go shopping, as “rewarding and enjoyable because they are reciprocal”. This only served to reinforce the messages we have heard through much of our work with older people: age does not impact on our desire and ability to contribute to the lives of others at both an individual and community level through work or other activities. However two key elements need to be in place to ensure that older people with higher support needs can continue to contribute through work or other chosen means. Firstly, people need to be allowed and encouraged to have aspirations about their own lives. Secondly, the right support needs to be available for those who need it to follow those aspirations through to reality.

The first of these sounds simple, but personal aspirations are usually driven and realised where others around you hold positive expectations about what you can and will achieve. We know for younger disabled adults that the likelihood of them getting into employment is strongly affected by the assumptions of those around them. For older people wishing to continue working they may face ageism in the workplace, assumptions they will want to stop work and relax into older age, or as some of our older associates recently recounted, “peer-ageism” and low expectations from friends, family and society.

In our society, work remains the most valued way of contributing; yet lifting the default retirement age, a new Older Workers Champion and the Wellbeing Principle in the Care Act will go only part of the way towards encouraging people to continue to dream about what they can accomplish when we are tackling long-held cultural assumptions. I welcome the moves towards shifting these expectations which are coming from policy, people themselves and wide ranging debates about working roles beyond retirement. This week marks Older People’s Day and The Age of No Retirement, both of which seek to value the contributions of older people and debate how we can reap the benefits of an ageing population to increase the productivity of a nation.

The second point I make concerns the need for the right support to follow where an individual has additional needs. NDTi has done a range of work and research about the most effective pathways to employment for disabled people and those with mental health issues, with support within the workplace being a key factor for success. Ageing brings an increased likelihood of health and other issues which add to people’s need for support to continue at work, something which isn’t always forthcoming, especially where someone is seen as nearing retirement.

We recently completed work on “Circles of Support for People with dementia”. One story which struck me as poignant was that of a man recently diagnosed with dementia who feared telling his employer about his diagnosis in case he lost his job. His circle provided both emotional and practical support for him to broach the issue with his employer, provide information on dementia and arrange some small workplace adjustments. The manager was understanding and made arrangements for the support needed and furthermore became part of the man’s important circle of friends and family. The positives of this go beyond those for the individual, who maintained a valuable respected role, income and a social circle. The employer maintained a skilled worker, the benefit system saved from one less person joining its ranks and the social care system did not need to step in to take control. This story is not the norm, but the conversations taking place this week and policy and practice changes over the longer term will hopefully lead to it becoming more common over the years to come.

Over the upcoming months and years, NDTi’ s Ageing and Older People’s programme will continue to explore with older people and partners how we ensure that even those with the highest support needs have the chance to contribute, work and be valued by the people and communities around them. It is important that we hear and act on the voices of older people to generate positive change and how whatever our age, our aspirations can still become reality.

Madeline Cooper-Ueki is the Programme Lead - Learning Disability at the National Development Team for Inclusion (NDTi)

NDTi is an organisation that promotes equal and inclusive lives for people in their communities, particularly where ageing or disability are issues

Madeline Cooper-Ueki's blog is a personal opinion and does not necessarily reflect the views of the NDTi.