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Reviews of the British Society of Gerontology conference, Bristol, September 2009, by BSG Bursary award holder

My first BSG conference – what to expect? As a new kid on the block just kitted out with post-doctoral  ‘emerging researcher’ L plates, submitting an abstract proposal months ahead was one thing, being the grateful recipient of a bursary to attend the conference another, but showing up and talking with and listening to leading international researchers in ageing was quite something else altogether. Looking back, three enduring memories of the Bristol 2009 conference at the University of the West of England come to mind – its pace, its comradeship, and its inspiration.

I suppose I should have made more detailed route plans through the 200 page plus conference abstracts handbook, but the pace of the packed programme needed more micro-planning than I’d mustered. Dr Gloria Gutman’s opening plenary and her images of female role models – Tina Turner or Whistler’s Mother anyone? – stayed with me, as I shuttled between sessions. The ‘problem’ was of choice – so much to do, so little time. I missed some must-do symposia but happened serendipitously upon others. The early research findings of the New Dynamics of Ageing programme were illuminating – ‘Older people’s use of unfamiliar space’ (Professor Judith Phillips) reported on meanings and navigation of space that embraced memory, history and stories, alongside physical characteristics.

The pace of the programme extended into the evenings. Poetry readings by the women from the Grey Hen press were wonderfully wicked – inspired booking by the conference organisers – Grey Hen’s volume A Twist of Malice solved a lot of Christmas present choices for me last year. Although I dismally failed to match Tina Turner’s pace [even without the heels] in scooting between symposia, I did get to my own presentation.

A second memory of the conference was the comradeship of others – small words of encouragement always help – and I was grateful to the chair of my session, Dr Liz Lloyd, for hers. My paper, based on the completed doctorate, critically evaluated Michael Lipsky’s theory of street level bureaucracy in understanding implementation of policy to protect older people from abuse. It was a good exercise in holding an audience at 2.30 in the afternoon in a warm room; one perhaps needing a little more work. The chair of BSG Professor Judith Phillips generously made time available to talk with me about career options, Professor Jill Manthorpe imparted priceless advice on writing and getting published - ‘it’s not rocket science’ (just do it). This galvanised me to write a piece at breakneck speed after the conference, which was later accepted for publication. Great advice.

And the inspiration. For me this came in Alan Walker’s plenary, Inequality in late life – causes and solutions. Professor Walker noted how near collapse of the global banking system – the euphemistic ‘credit crunch’ – can be easily used to legitimate cuts in public expenditure, and to scape-goat older people [the problematisation of living longer]. And yet … little outrage at 50 trillion dollars [and rising] to bale out the banking sector, but no appetite to find the 100 billion needed to upgrade the world’s slums. It is important to be reminded of this – its starkness can be forgotten. The presentation was rousing, moving, yet bittersweet, a poignant reminder of the legacy of Peter Townsend, in the year that saw his passing.

Without the BSG bursary and the generous contribution from the School for Policy Studies at University of Bristol, I wouldn’t have had this opportunity to be part of the 38th Annual conference of BSG. Thank you. The conference organisers were infinitely patient and helpful, and everything worked well. I came away fizzing with ideas, some of which have already come to fruition. Next time I come I’ll plot the programme with laser precision, and keep that image of Tina Turner closer to hand.  

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