Understanding Society’s Oldest Old

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Dubbed the ‘fourth generation’ in a recent AGE UK report (2013) [1], the oldest old (85+) are the fastest growing sector of the UK population. Using new data from UK’s largest ever social survey – Understanding Society – this blog presents preliminary findings about the ‘oldest old’ and their levels of participation, wellbeing and health. These findings will be relevant to both practitioners and policy-makers alike.

The collaboration between ILC-UK and the Personal Finance Research Centre (funded by the ESRC) is now in full swing and has been producing results from several data sources. The project looks at financial dimensions of wellbeing and wider quality of life measures in older age. It began in earnest earlier this year and we will be presenting our work at several national and international conferences over the coming months. This is the third of a series of blogs [2] to highlight emerging findings from the research.

Understanding Society presents exciting new opportunities for those studying the oldest old, as it is one of the few datasets to provide a representative sample of the population aged 85 and above across the UK.

Initial analysis shows that, in the previous twelve months, around a quarter (24 per cent) of the oldest old visited a library, 16 per cent had been to the theatre, 13 per cent had visited a museum or gallery, while ten per cent had been to the cinema at least once. In keeping with recent qualitative research,[3] there was no evidence that older pensioners had fewer needs for taking part in social and leisure activities than younger pensioners. Indeed, at an age when physical abilities may well be declining, taking part in meaningful activities that provide enjoyment is a key component of health and well-being in later life [3].

However, our analysis of Understanding Society shows that health is clearly a major factor for the oldest old. Around a third said they were at least partly dissatisfied with their health, while over three-quarters (78 per cent) of the oldest old felt that their health limited even moderate activities, and about a half felt that pain had interfered with their activities over the past few weeks.

In addition to this, recent qualitative research highlighted the experience of bereavement and loneliness as a feature of later life [3]. Participants in that research raised the issue of loneliness as one of the main changes that had occurred with age, as partners and friends died. In our analysis, while the data showed that over eight in ten of the oldest old (81 per cent) felt they could rely on family ‘a lot’, more than one in ten (13 per cent) reported not having any friends.

Perhaps reflecting these and other detrimental effects of ageing, a worrying 26 per cent of people aged 85 and over reported being at least somewhat dissatisfied with their life overall. On the ‘flipside’, this of course means the three-quarters of the oldest old were at least somewhat satisfied with their lives.

We plan to extend our analysis of Understanding Society to look at the financial wellbeing of the oldest old. We hope to publish the findings in the winter.

David Hayes, Yvette Hartfree, Sharon Collard and Andrea Finney, Personal Finance Research Centre

A briefing on these findings is now available to download from the ILC-UK and PFRC websites, or in the Scribd box below.

[1 ] ‘Understanding the oldest old’, Age UK, 2013.

[2] Other blogs in this series:

A first-hand account of analysing second-hand qualitative data http://blog.ilcuk.org.uk/2013/05/24/a-first-hand-account-of-analysing-second-hand-qualitative-data/

Older people stay connected…and stay at home http://blog.ilcuk.org.uk/2013/05/08/older-peoplestay-connected-and-stay-at-home/

[3] Hartfree, Y., Hirsch, D., and Sutton, L. (2013) Minimum income standards and older pensioners’ needs. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Understanding the Oldest Old

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