Ageing isn’t (just) a number…

Census large

Focus 50+ ends on 31 May 2017. As this will be my last blog for CommonHealth, I thought I would sign off by sharing some discoveries from my experiences during the past 22 months.

Like the time I tried to find out what the widely-accepted definition of elderly is. Turns out there isn’t one. Some people use age ranges, other people talk about the ‘older old’ being elderly (so who counts as ‘old’?!) You can’t definitively classify elderly by any physiological measure because the ageing process is too individual and varied. The Edinburgh Lothian Birth Cohort Study demonstrates that. They found the neurological ageing process is different for everyone, or in other words, some people’s brains age much more slowly than others. And unfortunately, some age much faster.

In Focus 50+, the most riotous interview I had was with a 91 year old who isn’t just living life, it felt like she is life! Sadly I also witnessed the decline of someone in their 60’s in a few short months, and the loss of a very special volunteer in one social enterprise who didn’t make it to 40. I was so glad I met him. He was some guy.

So what is going on beyond the genetics and lottery of birth that gives some people every advantage and opportunity, and others almost none?  The good news is there are some things you can do to improve your own health and wellbeing. If you want to live happier and feel healthier, think about embracing these:

  • Social relationships: They matter. They are also correlated with decreased mortality. Why? We don’t fully understand that yet.
  • Have a sense of shared identity and being part of a group: There is a well-documented and longstanding relationship between group membership and health & wellbeing in academic research. So keep going to the football, or hanging out with your knitting group. It really is doing you good. Even if the team lose or your knitting is as woeful as mine…
  • Feeling young is vital: It’s good for you to keeping feeling like you are 18 inside! Feeling younger promotes your health and wellbeing. Fortunately, we all tend to do it naturally. That’s why the Scottish Census graph above shows less than 20% of people aged 85+ regard themselves as being in bad health. This is called the Wellbeing Paradox i.e. older people’s self-reported health remains at a level similar to younger, healthier respondents despite natural physiological ageing and decline.
  • Be satisfied with your own ageing process: Combined with feeling young (see above) this is an indicator that is being used to measure positive wellbeing. Accepting that you will age and being satisfied that you are ageing well makes you feel more positive.
  • Comparing yourself with others: This is a bit of a sensitive one. Social Comparison Theory says we feel better if we can compare ourselves to others who are not doing as well as us. It helps us feel more positive about what we can do. But there is an upside  to this theory – if we are part of a group, we also feel better if one of our group achieves something amazing.

Of course ageing is tough and challenging for many people, but society really isn’t doing much to help anyone feel better about their chronological age. Age stereotypes abound, and we should all try to challenge them whenever and wherever we come across them. We’ll all feel the benefit if we do, particularly when it becomes our turn to be called older. Or old. Or elderly. Or past it (see what I mean?!)

I would like to sign off with a huge THANK YOU to everyone who participated in the Focus 50+ research – we literally couldn’t have done it without you! – and everyone involved in the Focus 50+ team, the CommonHealth Research Programme & the Yunus Centre for Social Business and Health. Thank you all!

Fiona has been appointed Post-Graduate Research Fellow in Social Innovation and Public Policy in the Glasgow School for Business and Society from 1 June 2017.

The Domino Effect


‘Our movement attracts generous, self-motivated people – and its present growth is not surprising. Like all successful movements it will eventually become part of the establishment – and the whole thing starts again; that’s the natural order of things.’

Laurence Demarco

Senscot Bulletin, 3rd June 2016

I am currently collecting data for the Focus 50+ project and can think of little beyond that. However when I read Laurence’s words quoted above, I felt it encapsulated so much of what I am experiencing every day as I meet new people who engage with social enterprise in Scotland. As researchers on CommonHealth, none of us forget that the work we do each day can and will contribute to the constantly growing wealth of knowledge about the place of social enterprise in society. Personally, I find myself moved by my daily encounters with the generous, self-motivated folk working to make the lives of individuals and communities better.

As I am spending time with our Focus 50+ social enterprise partners, I am learning how their organisations work and what they do on a day-to-day basis. I am also interviewing people about the impact social enterprise has upon them, their health and their wellbeing, and this is proving to be a powerful and interesting experience. I am really looking forward to sharing our Focus 50+ results in the late spring of 2017.

As I continue through this fieldwork phase of Focus 50+, I witness daily the impact of social enterprises on people’s mood, their day, and their lives. On an individual level, this impact is like a domino effect. I have observed people’s mood brightening when greeted warmly by staff, and watched as this happy welcome is spread onward by the individuals towards the group they then join.

At the most recent Knowledge Exchange Forum this domino effect was also apparent in the way social enterprises considered ‘what if our service did not exist?’ and the effects that this would have on service user’s lives. For example, if a disadvantaged family was unable to get help with childcare, this would have a knock on effect on the ability of parents to get to work or gain an education, which in turn would affect the child’s future.

What is most unique about social enterprises is this ability to affect people’s lives in both small and large ways. It is not just about the direct benefits to staff or service users, but also the indirect and ‘non-obvious’ ways in which they can touch people’s lives that we may not necessarily consider.

I am finding the generous and self-motivated people Laurence refers to above everywhere in the social enterprises I have become involved with – amongst the board members, amongst the staff, amongst the volunteers, and amongst those who participate in the activities the organisations provide. And I know that CommonHealth researchers, including myself, will continue to strive every day to capture their spirit and the intangible atmosphere of support and belonging they create for everyone in their organisations, no matter how great that challenge may appear to be.

Fiona Henderson

Food…Glorious Food?

‘Our freedom to choose one bundle of commodities rather than another may have an important effect on the living standards we can have, the happiness we can enjoy, the well-being we can achieve…The perspective of freedom, with its diverse elements, is much too important to be neglected in the making of food policy.’ Amartya Sen,1987.

Capewell 2015 10 corporations food

I was fortunate enough to attend Public Health Scotland’s annual conference last week, ‘Securing Scotland’s Health.’ I was really impressed by the attendees’ passion for the fight against health inequalities to secure a better future for all of Scotland’s residents. For me, this commitment to the cause was summarised best in Professor Simon Capewell’s plenary session entitled ‘Securing Scotland’s Health by Pills or Policies?’

Professor Capewell is an epidemiology expert from the University of Liverpool. His central proposition is that there are things that impact negatively on our health which we as individuals cannot control and for those things policy change is the best solution. Amongst his examples of past public health policy successes were mandatory seat belts, tobacco sales and smoking bans. Minimum price for alcohol might be a future success, but is currently being fought in the European courts by the Scottish Whisky Association (SWA). The SWA claims the robust academic evidence that minimum pricing works is flawed, a tactic Capewell claims was used by the tobacco industry and is now increasingly adopted by the food industry. Green MSP Patrick Harvie has also recently accused the drink industry lobbyists of mirroring tactics used by the tobacco lobby to fight what he calls ‘life-saving legislation.’

Professor Capewell is particularly concerned about how widely and effectively industries can fight health policy. He ran through some worrying facts about the food industry, including that most of the food in a packet that we buy in the supermarket originates from one of only 10 huge multinational organisations (see picture above). Pepsico alone has a global annual turnover of over $65billion, greater than the individual GDP of over 100 countries. Professor Capewell argued that these companies are very powerful, and hence their tactics to undermine strong research evidence and influence governments through lobbying can be particularly destructive to the common good. The food industry matters greatly to public health. Across the conference it was shown that diet-related deaths are higher than alcohol and tobacco-related deaths combined, and that diabetes has more than doubled in males in areas of highest deprivation.

But thankfully all is not lost. In her blog for the Guardian last year, Ilana Taub stated social enterprises are making a difference throughout the food cycle in the UK, and evidenced her statement with examples of social enterprises growing food, distributing food, making & eating food together, and dealing with food waste. Taub believes social enterprise is making the food system in the UK more socially just, and highlights the importance of food not only as source of good health but also as a social process which creates bonds between people. Such intangible community bonds are embedded in our relationship with food and our cultural & social traditions, most of which revolve around locally-produced in-season or easily stored crops. For example, St Andrew’s Day is almost upon us and many of us will sit down to haggis, neeps and tatties, whilst in the USA Thanksgiving celebrations will see families and communities come together to eat a traditional meal.

Fortunately for us, social enterprise in Scotland has embraced the challenge of ensuring locally grown food is available in some deprived communities and many continue to preserve the intangible social value of food through their activities. So perhaps on St Andrews Day we should raise a glass to the Scottish Community Food Social Enterprise Network, and thank them for playing their part in ‘Securing Scotland’s Health.’

Picture Source: Capewell, S (2015) Securing Scotland’s Health by Pills or Policies? Presentation at Faculty of Public Health Conference Securing Scotland’s Health, 5 – 6 November 2015, Peebles Hydro.

The social enterprise census 2015

census‘I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, sir,’ said Alice,
‘because I’m not myself, you see.’
Lewis Caroll, Alice in Wonderland, p.28.

The Social Enterprise Census 2015 came out this week and shows Scotland’s social enterprise sector is thriving. It reports that Scotland currently has over 5000 social enterprises, equivalent to one for every 1000 people. The signs are promising for future growth too, as on average over 225 new social enterprises have established themselves every year for the past 5 years. That is not to say the sector is young and vulnerable – the census finds the average age of a Scottish social enterprise is 17 years – though it does report that 42% were created in the last decade, and the authors propose that this burgeoning of the sector is the direct result of a supportive policy environment. While this is great news, it also highlights one of the difficulties with collecting statistics like these, specifically that they give you very little insight into the causations and explanations behind the figures. It may be supportive policy has driven social enterprise formation, but it could also be a result of austerity and people creating their own jobs.

This is where CommonHealth and similar research projects are really important. Our work can take these figures and help illuminate some of the stories and evidence behind them, particularly where that evidence contradicts what we thought we knew. The Census 2015 has discovered that social enterprise locations in Scotland mirror the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD –, with 5% located in the 5% of most deprived areas, 10% in the 10% of most deprived areas and so on. This is contrary to the common belief that social enterprises tend to cluster in areas of poverty and deprivation, and further emphasises how important this Census is to giving us a clear picture of social enterprise activity in Scotland.

The Census 2015 also found 60% of social enterprises are run by women, and that the gender split is equal for voluntary directors and committee members. Women are very well-represented amongst employees too – 70% of social enterprises report more than half of their employees are female. Further good news comes in the finding that 68% of social enterprises are paying the national living wage of £7.85 per hour, a finding which puts the private sector to shame.

The Census has successfully managed the difficult job of trying to capture the complexity and diversity of the social enterprise sector, particularly given that 36% of social enterprises do not describe themselves as such. I came across this in my own research recently. I interviewed a social entrepreneur whose reaction to discovering she ran a social enterprise reminded me of the Alice in Wonderland quote at the start of this blog. She believed that local and traditional craft-making skills were lost once her generation passed so she decided (at almost 70 years old) to set-up an initiative training local folk in these traditional skills from within a non-profit craft shop. She was paying the shop’s rent out of her pension – all profits were ploughed back into materials for teaching and the shop’s upkeep – until one day someone from a nearby business suggested to her that she was a social enterprise. She told me when I interviewed her that her little craft shop and training efforts weren’t as important as a social enterprise sounded, so she didn’t think it could be a social enterprise. Fortunately her friend from the nearby business persisted, and she has begun applying for funding to keep the shop going and keep her pension.

Behind the Social Enterprise Census 2015 are over 5000 stories, some small and local stories like the one above, others much larger and more complicated. As we progress through the CommonHealth Project I hope to have the privilege of becoming part of a handful of these stories but I will be very careful, as Danielle reminded us in her recent blog, to Take only notes and leave only memories.

You are only as old as you feel!

 When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat that doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me,
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick the flowers in other people’s gardens,
And learn to spit.
Edited extracts from Warning, written by Jenny Joseph when she was 29 in 1961 (she’s now in her 80’s)

Hi everyone and welcome to my first ever blog. I have recently joined the CommonHealth team, working on Project 5 – Age Unlimited. I’ll be investigating the health and wellbeing impacts of social enterprises created by the over 50’s for the over 50’s. This has given me the opportunity to read some really interesting studies about aging, health and how we measure what we think of our own aging process.

Do you remember completing the census in 2010? There was a question asking ‘How is your health in general?’ I was surprised to find that most of us say we are in fair to very good health, and this effect holds well into later life – 80% of those aged 85 years and over still state they are in fair to very good health.

Why is this census question important? Because research has found that positive self-perceptions of ageing can be related to a better quality of life. In at least one longitudinal study this positivity has also been indirectly linked to better health and a longer life.

Your Granny knew what she was talking about when she said ‘you are only as old as you feel’ and ‘age is just a number.’ Alongside being positive about the advantages and experience of getting older, feeling young is an excellent way to improve your health and wellbeing. Most adults report feeling younger than they are, and the gap between their actual age and the age they feel widens as they get older. We are all 18 at heart.

One thing that can make us feel older is loneliness. Although loneliness is often mentioned in the same breath as social isolation, are they actually the same thing? It has been argued that researchers can easily measure social isolation by counting how many times you have social contact and whether you live alone amongst other things, but loneliness is more difficult because it is more subjective. However, other researchers disagree and argue that they are actually both subjective and complex, and so both are very difficult to measure. What we do know is loneliness and social isolation are both bad for our health and wellbeing, and that this appears to be consistent across the globe. One study in China found that 78% of older adults in rural areas were moderately or intensely lonely, so it’s not just a UK problem.

In her blog on 17 July, Clemmie mentioned social enterprise’s potential to reduce social isolation and hence improve health and wellbeing. My project intends to investigate this and other impacts that our selected social enterprises have on those who develop, work, volunteer for or access them.

The English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (we don’t have a Scottish equivalent yet) found that social, civil and cultural engagement increases when people retire but decreases when people became frail and/or when people lose access to transportation (perhaps through failing eyesight forcing them to give up driving, for example). Will we find this in our study? Or will social enterprises be effective at providing solutions to allow the frail and those without transport to re-engage?

I will always wonder about the design fault in humans as we age that means everything stiffens up on the inside but skin goes loose and baggy on the outside. Regardless of saggy skin or shades of grey in your hair, the important thing is if you still feel like you are 18 on the inside, you are improving your health and wellbeing.

So act your age? No thanks!