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Learning from our elders: ageing as embodied time

The way ahead, as life expectancy rises,
demands a deeper understanding of how it feels to be old

Dr Liz Barry, English and Comparative Literary Studies, Warwick

Ageing is one of few certainties in life. It is something everybody faces and people across the globe respond and deal with every day. Whether directly, or in terms of the impact it has on friends, family or loved ones, the effect of ageing is felt throughout our lives.

My research into this topic has been underpinned by my own experiences of ageing and death. It was motivated by my own experience of providing company for a friend at the end of her life. As our population enjoys increasingly longer lives, it is crucial that we understand the personal effects of ageing on the individual and those around them. When we feel we are approaching the end of our life, does our experience of time change? When we are young, life feels like it stretches out indefinitely, but from the standpoint of old age, it is a very short past.

We all experience ageing differently, but as life expectancy rises, more of us can expect to be touched by frailty or degenerative diseases such as dementia. 

In arriving at my current research, I worked backwards, from thinking about the experience of time towards the end of life, to thinking about old age in general, and how time feels very different when lived in fear of an accident, or a fall, or in contemplating a shortened lifespan. In later years, life might move more slowly because of mobility or cognitive issues, or confusion caused by diseases such as dementia.

This illness has been a key aspect of my research at the University of Warwick. I wanted to understand more about ageing and dementia, both elusive until you experience them. I wanted to explore how literature, theatre, and philosophy might help us understand not only the different stages of life, but also how somebody is embedded in their own social frameworks – something that can directly influence their experience of age.

Stories, for example, can show how we are connected to others. Literature can represent the texture of subjective experience and used alongside philosophy and psychology can help capture the experience of ageing.

In drawing on the collective knowledge and experience of different research disciplines, health professionals, literature, and those experiencing ageing and dementia – our research has had a real and lasting impact on the worlds of health and social care.

Through a focus on the personal experiences of older people we have applied our research to practical activities that have fundamentally improved their lives and wellbeing. Our research has helped train care and medical staff responsible for caring for older people, helping them better understand the experience of ageing and provide compassionate care to them.

After organising events and showcasing our findings, we have found doctors reported a new understanding of how to communicate with people living with dementia. As a result, they changed the language they used when caring for patients, which has positively impacted the lives of so many people.

At the same time, our more outside-of-the-box creative thinking has helped us form art interventions that are improving the wellbeing of those living with dementia. For example, I am in talks with Abbeyfield Society, a charity that provides sheltered housing and care homes for elderly people, to offer the workshop ‘Rhythms of Memory’ to its care homes across the country.

These new art interventions go beyond filling time – they actively engage with older people and allow them to shape their own activities. A poetry playlist for those over 60 is also in development, with the aim of reconnecting the elderly with the verses from their childhood that are often deeply rooted in the long-term memory.

We have encountered some challenges along the way, the biggest of course being the pandemic. This derailed part of our research plans, making direct contact with older people impossible and changing the shape of what interventions might look like.

However, it has also provided opportunities. Our shift to the screens allowed us to create an online broadcast as part of the ‘Being Human’ festival with carers and those living with dementia, as well as giving me an opportunity to apply my work directly, now thinking about care under new conditions.

I am delighted with our progress. We all get old, so this matters to everyone. We also all want to live in a society that values and cares for older people and recognises the rich skills and knowledge they still have to offer. It's crucial that we try to capture and understand the experience of those who cannot always express it or are not given a platform to do so. 

We can attend to what older people really value, rather than making assumptions or trying to design their life for them. Particularly, in the case of dementia, we can explore and rethink what constitutes personhood, and recognise the way in which people's selves and capacity to interact meaningfully with others can survive the loss of memory or language. 

The University of Warwick recognises the impact of our work and is extremely supportive of new and sometimes experimental thinking and activities. Our dynamic, cross-faculty and interdisciplinarity approach unites colleagues and draws on a variety of expertise to achieve more, together.

It is through this that we have been able to have a real-world impact and positively impact so many lives.

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