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Peter Townsend Memorial Conference

On Friday 20 November 2009, a one-day conference organised by Dave Gordon (University of Bristol) was held at Conway Hall in London to celebrate the work and life of Peter Townsend (1928-2009). About 350 people from higher education, the voluntary sector, local government, the NHS and the media attended. The day was divided into four themes: inequalities in health, social policy, poverty and social exclusion and older people. This latter theme opened the conference reflecting the commitment and passion of the young Peter Townsend to improve the quality of life for older people. There were three speakers: Randall Smith (University of Bristol), Hilary Land (University of Bristol) and Alan Walker (University of Sheffield). Other gerontologists expressed their regrets that they could not contribute to the day as they were in Atlanta at the Gerontological Society of America conference.

Randall Smith opened the conference by referring to the groundbreaking books and monographs on various aspects of old age published by Peter in the 1950s and 1960s. He then focused on ‘The Last Refuge’ as he is one member of a team of three "revisiting" the study drawing on the raw material in the archive at the University of Essex. (His colleagues are Julia Johnson and Sheena Rolph from The Open University.) He contrasted the profile of residents in the late 1950s and the early years of the 21st century and reflected on the continuing salience of Peter's trenchant conclusions. Focusing on the current profile of dementia among older people in general and in care homes in particular, he concluded that residential care is a radically different social policy instrument today compared with 50 years ago. He suggested that well resourced care homes might provide a better basis for reflecting the human rights of older people with dementia than "community based" options such as extra care housing, but doubted whether those adequate resources would be forthcoming in the current and medium term future economic climate.

Hilary Land initially focused on Peter's contribution to the debate about pensions for older people and pointed out that the redistributive principles underlying his proposals have in large measure been forgotten by New Labour. She then turned to the study of extended families in East London, stressing the element of methodological innovation. ‘The Last Refuge’ was the first book of Peter's that Hilary read and it made her very angry. She learnt subsequently when working for Peter on the national poverty survey that anger can be channelled and used constructively to make the case for positive changes. Hilary then touched on the theoretical work on structured dependency and the prevalence of ageism in society. By the 1990s, pensions were again on the agenda, particularly following the 1997 general election. Peter had worked with Barbara Castle and Hilary suggested that perhaps Barbara Castle was one of the very few people of whom Peter was a little frightened. Peter remained a Fabian committed to rational policymaking. He, unlike some colleagues, was never a government adviser. He preferred to challenge from the outside, as witnessed in his sustained involvement with the Child Poverty Action Group and the Disability Alliance. In conclusion, Hilary argued that Peter always challenged the view that older people were a burden, but she went on to say that the answer did not lie in the much vaunted idea of "independence". Rather it was a situation of "honourable dependency".

Alan Walker, like Randall Smith, reminded the delegates of the seminal works on older people written by Peter in the 1950s and the 1960s. In particular, he quoted from the last paragraph of ‘The Last Refuge’. "Possibly the ultimate test of the quality of a free, democratic and prosperous society is to be found in the standards of freedom, democracy and prosperity enjoyed by its weakest members." Alan then touched on Peter's key contribution to the sociology of ageing, encapsulated in the first article of the first issue of the journal, Ageing and Society, in March 1981. The piece was headed "The structured dependency of the elderly: a creation of social policy in the twentieth century". Alan identified three key items of unfinished business. The first was the relationship between sociology and social gerontology. He noted that the political economy approach had become part of mainstream thinking and reiterated his critique of the recent "cultural turn”, arguing that "individualisation" had neglected the social dimension. Second, on social policy, he identified a disconnect between ageing and social policy, a separation between social policy and social gerontology. Social policy needed to engage with the multidisciplinary science of ageing. Third, he listed a number of political challenges, including getting unequal ageing on the agenda,” the two nations in old age". Ageism had to be addressed and the political priorities included creating a poverty reduction target, introduction of anti-age discrimination, a strategy to prevent unequal ageing, an increase in the basic pension and the establishment of an Age Alliance to Combat Poverty. This provided a strong link to the subsequent themes of the day. The event was recorded and, in due course, will be available on the web.

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