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Resources: Interviews

Steve Whitley is Chair of the Elders Council of Newcastle, which provides an effective voice for older people resident or active in the City of Newcastle upon Tyne. He is also a grandfather of five.

How has science improved our understanding of ageing in the past decade or so? What breakthroughs do you regard to be most exciting in the field and why?

Through comparative studies, there has been a much better understanding of the factors which impinge on the quality of life of older people in different cultures. The establishment of such bodies as the Institute for Ageing and Health in Newcastle has led to a steady advance along a broad front in our struggle to understand how to have a practical impact upon older people’s quality of life.

Do you see any prospect in the future for radically increasing the human lifespan beyond the current 120 years or so?

I see a steady growth in understanding rather than any Nobel-Prize-worthy breakthrough.

If possible, would you regard the pursuit of radical life extension as a morally worthwhile pursuit, or as a selfish individual pre-occupation with immortality?

It is known how this could be achieved. The problem, however, is that the disparity between those classes with the resources to take advantage of such knowledge and those classes without the resources could increase even beyond the present unacceptable difference.

In recent years, the elderly have often been portrayed as a burden on society – debates over pensions, NHS care and social care have particularly highlighted this idea. Whilst most of us would like to live long, healthy and prosperous lives, are we sitting on a “population timebomb” that threatens to overwhelm our resources?

I do not see the counter position that you are suggesting. What matters is the sociopolitical will to pay attention to the healthy longevity of all human beings rather than of a few who have been able to appropriate resources for themselves.

Some fertility clinics have begun to provide IVF for women well into their 50s. Critics regard the use of IVF in this way to be selfish and unfair to the child born to the older mother, while others emphasise the right of the mother to choose when she has a child. Are you concerned about women becoming mothers over the age of 50?

No. But it is essential that there is a fundamental re-thinking of the way in which we humans operate: there must be an end to our selfish frittering away of the planet’s resources.

It has been said that the way we care for the elderly in Britain means that for many, their last years are “painful and meaningless”. What changes do you think can and should be made to improve the lives of people approaching the end of life?

Not really; it depends on what cultural family norms operate in the society that the woman lives in.

The recent replacement of the Strictly Come Dancing Judge Arelene Phillips with a younger woman has led some to claim that this is a reflection of a youth obsessed society? Elsewhere, concerns about workplace discrimination against older people raise important questions. Do you think ageism is a problem in our society and, if so, why and in what form?

Sociopolitical and attitudinal changes are vital. For example, New Labour pusillanimously abdicated from the debate when the Tories described a perfectly reasonable option for paying for care as a ‘death tax. If British politicians cannot discuss this matter in a more mature and consensual manner, the most productive solutions will not be found.

Do you think society holds an accurate impression of what life is like in older age and, if not, what inaccuracies and prejudices would you like to see challenged?

Yes – ageism is rife. For example, a study by the Elders Council of Newcastle into the portrayal of older people in the local press showed that we are newsworthy mainly when we are victims.

What contribution to society do you think older people make, and how can society better harness what older people have to offer?

The contribution that older people make to society is largely unrecognised. A survey of such contributions was made by the Elders Council of Newcastle; it revealed older people’s work in:

  • caring for children;
  • caring for siblings and even their own parents and other older relatives;
  • religious bodies;
  • school governing bodies;
  • helping in school (e.g., reading with children) and;
  • much more


How would you improve upon the level and quality of interaction between the generations in contemporary society?

By specifically engaging in inter generational work. For example, the local older people’s forum and the local youth parliamentarians could have regular meetings: they would find, as we have done in Newcastle, that they share a lot of common ground.


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