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Who's Who
Arlene Astell, University of St Andrew's
Dr. Arlene Astell, University of St. Andrew’s, is a psychologist with a particular interests in older people, dementia, and technology. Arlene was Principal Investigator on the CIRCA and Living in the Moment projects, both funded by the EPSRC. She is currently Principal Investigator on the NANA project, part of the New Dynamics of Ageing (NDA) programme.

Describe yourself in three words?

Determined, hardworking, caring (other people might say bossy!).

How did you get here today (i.e. career/research)?

I was a mature student at Warwick. I hadn’t heard of Psychology at school and I’m pleased that I went to University a little later when I really knew what I wanted to do. My first job was in a long-term psychiatric hospital that was due to close. I was employed to interview all the patients aged over 70 years old about where would they like to live. This patient group included a number of people with dementia and I was fascinated by the process of ensuring real communication with these people. The following year I had the opportunity to do a PhD focussing on dementia and its impact on communication. Following my PhD I worked in the NHS in a memory clinic. Then I moved to Scotland and I’ve been at St. Andrews since 2001 still working in the field of dementia.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?

“Less is more.”
Writing or explaining clearly and in fewer words is far more effective than long complex pieces with lots of jargon or big words that are difficult to follow. Most of my work is cross-disciplinary and good communication is particularly important. The key is simplicity and directness.

Who’s the most influential person in your life and why?

My granny. She is nearly 98 and until she was 95 she lived independently. She is a constant presence in my life and the lives of my children. I saw her as a role model, an example, not in developing a career because she wasn’t in that generation, but she taught me to cook and how to make people feel valued and important. I hope I have inherited her genes. I want to live to be at least 97.

What’s the best book you’ve ever read?

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. One of those books that stays with you for a long, long time after you’ve read it. For informing my work, I would say Working Brain by A.R.Luria (1973). I struggled to get through this when I was a PhD student, but the insights and understanding I got from it have had a huge influence on my approach to working with people as they age.

What do you do when you are not doing ageing research?

My family would say I don’t do anything besides work! I like to cook and I worked as a chef before going to University. Cooking is very mentally absorbing and physically demanding. You have to concentrate so it is a good way to get a break from research work. I think it is also part of the “caring” and “looking after people” that I learned from my granny. My tip would be not to drink wine while cooking, otherwise it doesn’t work so well!

What’s the future for ageing research?

I think there has to be an expansion of ageing research given the demographics. However, I think it is even more important that we change the mindset towards ageing. Old age is seen in terms of decline and becoming a burden. I think we need to start asking ourselves, “how do we want to live the 2 or 3 decades that follow retirement”? We really need to have a pro-active strategy for dealing with living longer and a positive approach to what we are going to do during our later years of life.
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