Thinking about ageing in a negative way? You’re more likely to die young...

Politicians won’t prioritise ageing if we don’t, panel hears at MacGill Summer School

A portrait of the late Brian Friel. the MacGill Summer School has the influences of art and literature mixed through  political talk. Photograph:  Bobbie Hanvey

A portrait of the late Brian Friel. the MacGill Summer School has the influences of art and literature mixed through political talk. Photograph: Bobbie Hanvey

 

Last week brought my first taste of the MacGill Summer School, one of those unique Irish experiences which was always on my list of “must get up there some day”. Set in a small village in west Donegal, it attracts not only attendance by leaders in public life and the commentariat but also the general public with attendant wide media coverage.

An added benefit for new attendees is to discover the radical yet lyrical novels and poetry of Glenties native Patrick MacGill. Soldier, navvy and socialist, his work makes explicit the oppressive synergy of landlords, merchants and the Church in the early period of the 20th century. This literary background is counterpointed by the shadow identity of Glenties as Brian Friel’s Ballybeg, and arts and literature thread through the political topics.

The ambience is relaxed, with timings running to Glenties rather than Greenwich Mean Time.

Challenging topics are explored in a loose-limbed fashion without necessarily forcing a consensus and notably affording significant space for participation by the audience, mainly but not entirely of mature years.

It is a pity that more younger people are not present, as the Summer School is a vibrant laboratory for new ideas and synergies.

Our panel on ageing included a psychologist, a lawyer in human rights, an economist and myself, and generated a lively discussion largely focussed on how much of the perceived challenge of ageing arises from our individual ambivalence or negativity about our own ageing. If you harbor a negative stereotype of ageing, you are more likely to die young, spend longer in hospital and respond less well to rehabilitation, and be more lonely as you age.

If we do not get our relationship with our own personal ageing right, how on earth are we going to make it right for everybody? This lack of identification with ageing not only as our common fate but also as a complex period of simultaneous richness and vulnerability has even more profound consequences in terms of stunting the political will to build an age-friendly society.

Politicians are smart people with highly sensitive antennae, and if they do not detect a sense that we truly believe that it is vital and worthwhile to have a health and social care system which supports us through services proportionate and sensitive to our needs as we grow older, they will devote their attention to services where they think we do.

By way of example, we not only identify with the possibility of developing cancer and heart disease but also believe and articulate that they are worth treating adequately: services for cancer and heart disease are correspondingly well developed and organized compared to other areas of the health service.

This contrasts with the lack of public outcry over the freezing of Home Care Packages for older people - a key element of stated public policy of supporting frail older people in their own homes - which is symptomatic of our failure to engage with our own ageing.

Equally we are not pushing back at a discourse promoted by government that there is a preference for institutional care over community care, creating an artificial conflict whose narrative is clearly aimed at applying the so-called ‘Fair Deal’ type funding to community care, a scenario that would be unimaginable for cancer chemotherapy or cardiac surgery.

We have to keep reminding ourselves that this could be us, that we can do much better, and that the key to this is to value our future selves and embrace our vulnerabilities. So instead of fretting about brain-training and age-denying “anti-ageing” face creams, we must devote our energies to creating a political discourse and popular groundswell that puts a premium on promoting optimal ageing as a common fate for us all.

This drive for a radical political repositioning of care frameworks for us as we age finds echo in the words of the Austrian poet Rilke: “Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

Ireland should be eternally grateful to Joe Mulholland for creating this unique social, political and cultural experience, and as an added bonus webcasts of the proceedings are available on the Donegal County Council website (https://donegalcoco.public-i.tv/core/portal/webcasts): but nothing beats the live experience, and I look forward to future visits to Glenties.

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