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Cutting Edge
What Do We Know Now that We Didn’t Know Then? Reflections on the First Forty Years of BSG
1971 was a momentous year. The Aswan Dam was completed, Richard Nixon was Present of the United States of America, and Edward Health was Prime Minister of Great Britain. Domestically, Britain concerted to decimal currency and the Welsh Language Society was campaigning actively for the use of Welsh names on road signs. In terms of popular culture, 1971 marked the first Glastonbury Festivals, the formation of Queen and the death of Jim Morrison. If you don’t understand the cultural/political/sporting references look them up on Wikipedia!

Of course 1971 also saw the foundation of the British Society of Gerontology. Then we were known as the British Society of Social and Behavioural Gerontology and the first Executive Committee meeting was held in March 1971 (see Figure 1). We changed our name in 1979 (see Figure 2). The stated aim of the new society was to “to increase, disseminate and apply knowledge of the social, and behavioural aspects of ageing in human beings and support, encourage and raise standards of research, teaching and service in this field’’. Thus the remit of the Society embraced research, teaching and practice with an emphasis upon dissemination. In comparison the Gerontological Society of America (GSA) was conceived after a group of 24 scientists and physicians (some of them participants at a 1937 Woods Hole conference) formed the Club for Research on Ageing with the GSA formally established in 1945 with the aim of to "promote the scientific study of aging”. So from the outset the perspective of the BSG has been broader than the more narrowly focussed GSA - at least in terms of the terms of reference.

Figure 1: Founding Executive Committee of BSG

Figure 2: Change of Name to BSG

We were not, however, the only group in Britain interested in issues of old age and later life. The British Geriatrics Society (BGS) was founded in 1947 for “the relief of suffering and distress amongst the aged and infirm by the improvement of standards of medical care for such persons, the holding of meetings and the publication and distribution of the results of research”. The Journal Gerontologia Clinicia was founded in 1959 with a focus on research looking at the clinical aspects of individual ageing and the location of older people in society, and became the official BGS journal in 1967. In February 1972 first issue of Age and Ageing published. The BGS grew out of the "Club for Ageing” BUT note the important work of Marjorie Warren and other pioneering geriatricians such as Lionel Cosin of Orsett hospital in Essex who established the first day hospital in Cowley Road, Oxford, and pioneered operations for fractured neck of femur.

In 1939, Vladimir Korenchevsky founded the British Club for Research on Aging (which was the first Gerontological Society in the world), and focussed on "the causes and processes of the ageing by clinical or other observations on human beings or related experimental studies on animals”. This organisation was the first scientific body to be concerned specifically with gerontology as a scientific discipline and was forerunner of the many national gerontological societies now established throughout the world including the British Society for Research on Ageing. Korenchevsky went on to organize the 1st International Congress of Gerontology in 1950.

The BSG held its first Annual Conference in September 1971 in Nottingham and the programme is characterised by a focus upon these key themes: (a) work and employment; (b) mental health; and (c) design and behavior; and (d) measuring need (see Figure 3). Some 42 delegates attended the conference broadly representing medicine (15 delegates), psychology (12) and social science (8). BSG now has 250-300 members. Based on our latest membership survey about a third are practitioners, mostly nurses and social workers, and about three-quarters of members are ‘social science’ orientated. We have, however, largely lost the significant medical and psychology membership that characterised the Society in its early days.

Figure 3: 1st Annual Conference – University of Nottingham (1971)

The annual conference has been a central feature of the activities’ of BSG since 1971, but the number of delegates has grown as has the number of papers presented. So in 1981 we had an international plenary speaker, 123 delegates and 44 papers. In Manchester in 1991 we had 37 papers and this grew to 114 in Stirling in 2001.

Generations was launched in 1985 as the successor to Ageing Times (see Figure 4) and Generations Review in 1991 (with a sherry reception!) (see Figure 5). Ageing & Society, a partnership between BSG, Centre for Policy on Ageing (CPA) (formerly NCCOP) and Cambridge University Press, was launched in 1981 and at Brunel University in 2010 we celebrated 30 successful years of the Journal.

Figure 4: First Issue of Generations

Figure 5: The Launch of Generations Review

Having looked briefly at the development of the Society we now need to look at how our understanding of ageing and later life has developed over the last forty years. In 1971 those aged 65 had been born in 1904 when life expectancy was about 48 years; those aged 75 had been born in 1894 when life expectancy was 47 and those aged 85 had been born in 1884 when life expectancy was 43 (see Figures 6 & 7). People aged 65 in 2011 were born in 1946-a different world from the 1880s and this reminds us of the importance of both cohort and period effects in understanding the experience of ageing and later. The importance of cohorts is thrown into sharp focus with the interest in the ageing of the baby boomers and the demise of the spinster population which we all took for granted in 1971.

Figure 6: William and Mary Victor - Born 1886

Figure 7: James and Emma Clark - Born 1884 and 1888

We had limited data about older people in 1971 which inevitably limited some of the empirical studies that we conducted. In 2011 the UK Data Archive had 667 holdings relating to older people, but in 1971 we had limited routine data (vital registration data), a range of Government surveys – the General Household Survey started in 1971 and a range of local surveys. Whilst we had a number of birth cohorts such as that established in 1946, longitudinal studies of ageing in Britain were rare. ELSA - the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA) was not established until much later.

In 1971 disengagement and activity theory, modernisation and ageing as a ‘sub-culture’ were our major theoretical tools. The number of theoretical perspectives at our disposal has developed over the last forty years as we have embraced continuity theory, exchange theory, age stratification, political economy approaches, social construction, life course (a theory, a method or a paradigm?), feminist and critical theories. However, this does not mean that our discipline is dominated by theory - much of our work still lacks a sharp theoretical focus and is often applied in nature, not, of course, a bad thing. As a discipline there is a creative tension between theoretically informed work and the very applied service delivery studies.

Funding for gerontological work is available from a broader range of sources than in 1971 -we have had several specific ageing programmes lead by ESRC (e.g. Growing Older and New Dynamics of Ageing), as well as work funded by charities, the government and the NHS. This does mean that, as a research community, our work is shaped by funding priorities and - in these - issues concerned with service delivery and health care issues such as dementia dominate. One key development has been the revelation of the heterogeneity of the population defined as ‘older’ with the ageing of our minority communities and the achievement of ‘old age’ for groups who in 1971 had a very limited life expectancy such as those with Down’s Syndrome. In recognising the diversity of the ageing population we are still addressing the prevalent and embedded myths and stereotypes of old age and the ageism with which 21st century Britain is still characterised.

What are the challenges for BSG as it as looks towards the next forty years? As well as BSG, BGS and BSRA there are large and thriving special interest groups focussed on ageing in BPS, RCN, BSA Ageing Body Group. We have lost our core founding membership of psychologists and doctors and, personally, I feel that this is loss to the Society as these are important perspectives. Given the emphasis of research funding the future of much ageing research is inter-disciplinary and a key challenge for BGS is to link with other societies and disciplines, nationally and internationally, and to maintain our identity.
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