The Sciences of Ageing and the Culture of Youth

Guest post by Dr Martina Zimmermann, Lecturer at King’s College London


The Sciences of Ageing and the Culture of Youth

Guest post by Dr Martina Zimmermann, Lecturer in Health Humanities and Health Sciences at King’s College London

Ageing evokes ideas of degeneration, decline and loss. It comes with anticipations of dependence and vulnerability and conjures anxieties about disease. Such pessimism about ageing endangers all facets of intergenerational solidarity, shapes perceptions of the worth and value of human beings and directs decisions about care, research, and funding priorities. The Sciences of Ageing and the Culture of Youth, 1880 to the present day (SAACY) is a research programme funded by a UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Future Leaders Fellowship. It aims to offer a conceptual framework to overcome cultural pessimism about ageing, informing practices and policy developments in these areas.

SAACY explores diverging perspectives about ageing – those understanding ageing as a separate period in life marked by disease as compared to those comprehending it as a life-long process of biological change. It is invested in the possibility that shifting conceptualisations away from a disease model holds the potential for a stronger policy focus on care. In particular, the project is interested in the phenomenon that cultural connotations of older age often connect the forgetting self to the ageing self. The link between dementia and ageing is both medical and cultural. Next to cancer and cardiovascular conditions, neurodegenerative disorders are the most common conditions typical of old age, with Alzheimer’s disease the most prevalent form of dementia in older people. At the same time, the condition’s unidirectional disease trajectory resonates with concepts of decline and loss that the popular imagination connects to ageing. One of SAACY’s motivations is to investigate the role of dementia in how ageing features in the popular imagination. It aims to challenge the disconnect between the cultural devaluation of ageing as a neuropathological decline and the scientific account of senescence as a lifelong biological process. Some of the questions SAACY asks are: what role does dementia play in anticipations and anxieties about old age? How do such preconceptions relate to concerns or experiences related to care? In what way do fears about dying and the end of life contribute to pessimism about ageing?

To answer these questions, SAACY reaches across all disciplines and sectors. Literature-based research closely attends to the dialogue between cultural discourses and scientific models of ageing. We carry out a sociological study, exploring meanings and anticipations of ageing, in collaboration with some of our project partners, including The Pam Britton Trust for Dementia and Ageing Well Brighton and Hove. Involving local communities, voluntary groups and their service users is central to SAACY’s mission. Through working collaboratively with local and national charities (Centre for Ageing Better, Centre for Policy on Ageing and Age UK), we seek out opportunities for engaging with different publics to challenge pessimism about ageing. By bringing the perspectives and convictions of service users into discussion workshops (policy laboratories) with the King’s Policy Institute, we aim to develop policy change for the ageing population.

Most recently, the collaboration between academy and the third sector enabled by SAACY produced an analysis of the informal dementia care situation in England and beyond. Published in Dementia: the international journal of social research and practice, the piece authored by Tony Britton, MBE, Founder Trustee of the Pam Britton Trust for Dementia and I as SAACY’s principal investigator, critically reflects on contemporary policy issues related to dementia care and proposes actions for change. Since dementia emerged as a major condition in Western countries during the 1980s, support for informal dementia care at a local community level has not been working for most carers today. Britton and I consider the carer’s lived experience against the background of four decades of dementia care as expressed in life-writing, traced in social studies and still insufficiently addressed by policy efforts. We illustrate how strongly the lived experience of dementia care is shaped by the presence (or not) of two things: a joined-up approach between health and social care and adequate information on available support services, accessible through an empowered named contact. Our deliberations centre on the UK context, and England in particular, but similar concerns have surfaced across other European nations, if not most prosperous countries of the Global North.

SAACY’s commitment to working with older people means that parts of this research programme suffered delays because of the Covid-19 pandemic. As we now increasingly reach out to different communities and groups to understand their perspectives and anticipations and anxieties about ageing, we look forward to sharing on these activities via the project blog, as well as our research project website, hosted by King’s College London. To get in touch about SAACY, please send us an e-mail or use this contact form. We also welcome your interest in SAACY’s social scientific inquiry.

Martina Zimmermann is a Lecturer in Health Humanities and Health Sciences in English, King’s College London. She trained in pharmaceutical sciences, specialised in neuropharmacology and obtained her Habilitation in Pharmacology. She holds a second PhD in the Health Humanities and has written two books about cultural and scientific narratives of dementia: The Poetics and Politics of Alzheimer’s Disease Life-Writing (2017) and The Diseased Brain and the Failing Mind: Dementia in Science, Medicine and Literature of the Long Twentieth Century (2020).