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Elizabeth Brooks

This year’s conference, my third, seemed particularly dynamic. There was a host of well-put-together workshops and seminars, many very relevant to my PhD area, so that I was often torn between two or three sessions running simultaneously.

Not having any close colleagues present – and being, in effect, sponsored to attend – prompted me to make a bigger effort to get involved and engage with all that was on offer. The conference was a friendly and accepting enough that I brought back home to the North East a renewed sense of belonging to a collective enterprise and a degree of respite from the nagging sense of apprenticeship that dogs a mature student. I also brought back a couple of coveted new books - affordable due to the generous conference-only discount. And, most important of all, I took back some fresh notions to chew over; here I’ll just highlight a handful.

At the first plenary, Alex Kalache, until recently Head of the WHO Ageing and the Lifecourse Programme, showed some powerful statistics about where population ageing will take us by 2050. While the developed world proportion of global population will remain relatively static, the immense bulk of the growth is forecast to take place in less developed countries and a high proportion of the growth will be in increased life spans, although with a greater percentage of years in poor health than in the industrialised nations. In response to this prognosis, Kalache urged us to make links with our academic peers in less developed countries, bringing them physically and figuratively into the ambit of the BSG, our ageing research programmes - and our funding networks.

In the second plenary, Miriam Bernard talked about the sustainability of new retirement villages. Perhaps of all the plenary speakers, Professor Bernard was the one who had gone into most detail about what the catch-all notion of “sustainability” might mean, comparing her case study with sustainable design ideals, and reminding us that there is more to sustainability than water and energy efficiency and Lifetime Homes standards, which she characterised as the “hardware” of sustainability. There is also a “software” of sustainability, which tends to be overlooked. It includes the extent to which people share meals, contribute to local food production, recycle waste, share tools and equipment and the ownership of vehicles. The torrential rain during the conference rather brought home this point in that the built-in unsustainable element of a sprawling and, in places, steep campus lacking in covered walkways was partly compensated, on the final day, by some of the participants pooling cars to offer lifts for those unable to negotiate the wet and slippery outdoors.

Sustainability, it became clear over the course of the conference, very much depends on the disciplines working together and talking to each other. Agreeing vocabulary seems to be a key starting point, and if the conference could have been improved in any small way, I would argue that a discussion of the different meanings of sustainability to the various disciplines assembled – or even a debate about the usefulness of this term - could have enhanced appreciation of the contribution to be made by gerontology. In this regard, a useful methodological tip could be gleaned from Catherine Hennessy’s account of 11 preparatory networks initiated to get the interdisciplinary (research council funded) New Dynamics of Ageing programme up and running (in the course of a seminar on Research Methods). The suggestion was sourced to Bracken and Oughton (2007, p377) – the use of a heuristic metaphor as an interdisciplinary device, allowing people to share vocabulary and think in a more generic way. The example was given of the use of the term “connectivity” across many different professions. It was reassuring to learn that as with great dining or a memorable lecture, the key may lie in the prep.

Talking of a memorable lecture, it was appropriate that the nec plus ultra of the genre was delivered by the speaker who was chronologically (at age 83) most senior. Tony Benn, who famously quit being a member of parliament to “spend more time with politics”, dazzled with jokes, history, biography and a range of props, moving much of the company to a standing ovation. In his deployment of his oratorical skills, and his clear enjoyment of the proceedings, he burned a powerful image of “successful” ageing into my mind’s eye.

The final plenary, just preceding the concluding session of the conference, also stood out, and will for many attendees be fixed in the memory as the place where they first came across the idea of a virtual retirement home. Professor Graham Rowles of the University of Kentucky talked about our making and remaking of our living spaces over the life course. A physical manifestation of our identity, place-making is central to our later life wellbeing. Rowles left us with some tantalising questions as to how virtual spaces, via computer-hosted communities, such as “Second Life”, might support us to maintain our sense of ourselves, (perhaps partially compensating for the losses that occur in downshifting house moves?). I was left with an exciting notion of virtual streets composed of flats and houses reconstructed from memory and photographs into navigable virtual homes with the power to sustain us through progressive relocations, bereavements and downshifts; and even through the losses of dementia (Rowles cited Habib Chaudhury’s research finding on the benefits of photos of past dwellings in supporting people with Alzheimer’s to recapture their past). I left the conference with the hope that someone, somewhere has already started work on the software; and a perhaps more remote hope that I will manage to get my head around it before my time comes!

As petrol prices rise, and studentship funding comes to its end, it has been immensely helpful to have the support of a BSG student bursary to attend this year’s conference. I would encourage others who might otherwise be daunted by the cost of attending to have a go at the straightforward application form.

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