Purpose Prize winners 2010

Allan Barsema

Allan Barsema

A former homeless alcoholic and a housekeeper are among this year’s winners of The Purpose Prize, a $100,000 award for entrepreneurs over the age of 60.

The five winners, announced today, were selected by a panel of judges chaired by Sherry Lansing, former CEO of Paramount Pictures and the first woman to head a Hollywood studio.

Sherry Lansing

Sherry Lansing

Among them is Allan Barsema, whose alcoholism cost him his marriage, his home and his job, and who lived for a period from a trailer pulled behind his car. With help from his parents, he managed to stop drinking and to re-establish himself in work; and when, 10 years later, a homeless man barged into his construction company, he decided to set up a room for homeless people in his offices. At the end of that year, 2000, his work with the homeless had become so consuming that he devoted himself full-time to his centre, Carpenter’s Place. He settles 300 long-term homeless people in accommodation each year and has set up an innovative online system to coordinate services for the homeless, Community Collaboration, which has been adopted by 140 agencies in five states.

Margaret Gordon

Margaret Gordon

Margaret Gordon started reading environmental magazines in the house she cleaned and began to link pollution from the nearby container port to the one in five children aged between one and five in her home town of West Oakland who were being rushed to the emergency room  with asthma. Her analysis and campaigning has reduced diesel fumes and pollution from West Oakland’s port and she has been appointed by the Mayor to monitor toxic emissions.

Barry Childs

Barry Childs

Barry Childs is a former corporate executive who has set up a project to provide care and schooling for children, mainly orphaned by AIDS, in Tanzania, which has ended up helping whole communities.

Inez Killingsworth

Inez Killingsworth

Inez Killingsworth worked for the Cleveland Board of Education before she started fighting banks that had mis-sold mortgages and were turfing people out of their homes, demonstrating to them that they were wrecking whole neighbourhoods as well as individual lives. By fighting foreclosures, she has helped more than 10,000 families keep their homes. She has appeared in front of Congress and become a national spokesperson against shady mortgage practices, and a campaigner against the hefty penalties imposed by banks for missed mortgage payments.

Judith B Van Ginkel is a professor of paediatrics who, at the age of 60, created a home visits programme for first-time mothers at risk, half of whom were clinically depressed, and two-thirds of whom had witnessed violence or been victims of violence. Mothers in the programme are visited from the time when they first discover they are pregnant to when their children are aged three and can access help with health concerns, literacy, parenting and education.

Judith B Van Ginkel

Judith B Van Ginkel

So, five people with very different backgrounds, but a common desire to achieve something for others in the later part of their lives. You can see short films about all the $100,000 winners here; and there is more information, including about the five more $50,000 winners here. Oh, and please, Europe needs a Purpose Prize, too.

Design for living

lightPeople of 80 or 90 plus who are eking out their lives in nursing homes with very poor quality of life are, according to New York geriatrician Mark Lachs, an indictment of society’s priorities. ‘I would argue,’ he writes, ‘that the “life extension” these people have experienced – a good deal of it the result of technology – is as big a failure of medicine as any 40 year-old dying of breast cancer or 50 year-old perishing of a heart attack.’

Dr Lachs is the author of Treat Me Not My Age which, despite its title, isn’t mainly a book about ageism in medicine, but about how to avoid becoming one of those people with half-lives, detached from the world, fading away even while being kept alive by the ‘miracle’ of modern science. Some of Lachs’ prescriptions are familiar – he emphasizes the crucial role exercise plays in delaying immobility – but he also draws on fascinating work being done at Cornell University’s Weill Medical College, where he is professor of medicine, on the ways in which design can allow people to remain at home and connected to the world.

Architects typically base their designs on the body measurements and movements of people aged between 20 and 50 with no visual impairments. In an ageing population, this is a serious problem for housing, not to say discriminatory. Sometimes the modifications that would, for example, prevent falls – using contrasting colours for seating and carpets, or ensuring that there is good lighting in hallways, especially between bedroom and bathroom – are inexpensive and, once you have been alerted to them, glaringly simple.

Mark Lachs’ book led me to the Environmental Geriatrics website of his department at Cornell and to its offshoot This Caring Home, both of which are full of tips for intelligent design for homes. It’s worth looking at the multimedia course, which is aimed at medical students but is fascinating for anyone, to see what it’s like to go downstairs with perfect vision, then again with glaucoma or macular degeneration.

Older and wiser?

obama-hope

But not if you're over 55?

A couple of items of news pose the intriguing question of what impact an older population will have on politics. To take the more trivial first, research in the UK suggests that over-55s are blocking the development of wind power, consistently leading campaigns against wind turbines that would benefit future generations. On a rather more serious scale, Republican success in the US midterm elections is being widely attributed to the voting patterns of an older electorate.

In the past, there has been quite a lot of hopeful propagandizing for the view that the radicals of the 1960s will turn into the public-spirited utopians of the 21st century. Theodore Roszak, once the chronicler of the counter culture, speculated in his recent book, The Making of An Elder Culture, that upcoming generations of older people would be like no others we’ve seen.

‘The old are not a good audience for a dog-eat-dog social ethic,’ he wrote. ‘If anything, they create an ambience which favours the survival of the gentlest.’

Yet the ambience of the midterm elections was overwhelmingly angry. The tea party movement is the outgrowth of that anger and, according to Ed Pilkington of the Guardian, who spent much of the campaign on the Tea Party Express bus, the average age of those attending its rallies was over 50, with pensioners particularly visible.

In Florida, where 35% of voters are aged 65+ (compared to 23% across the nation) Marco Rubio was the tea party’s most prominent success. The 65+ vote across the United States went Republican by a 20 point margin. Not so much for liberals to cheer about there, then.

The British writer Fred Pearce has speculated that rather less testosterone in world affairs could turn out to be a very good thing and that the ageing population may bring about ‘a permanent end to patriarchy,’ given that it will probably be dominated by women. Anyone who assumes that this will mean a less confrontational, more empathetic and environmentally conscious group of elders should look at the research published in the last couple of days, which suggests that only six out of 10 over-55s support the development of wind farms, compared to 86% of 16-34-year olds and 100% of under-24s.

So will the very large group of older people associated with the ageing population be more idealistic than the old have ever been before? Or will they carry into old age qualities that owe more to those other babyboomer features, self-centredness and a sense of entitlement?

After Tuesday’s elections, the ambitions of those who believed, with Theodore Roszak, that ‘free-market economics and the elder culture are not a good fit,’ must feel rather shakier. The hopefulness that characterised the presidential elections in 2008 has evaporated. Apart from anger, the defining attitude of the electorate as expressed to exit pollsters was pessimism.

A good reason to get older

Picasso's Mousquetaire a la pipe

Mousquetaire a la pipe, oil on canvas, by Pablo Picasso, painted when he was a week shy of his 87th birthday

There was a fascinating story in the LA Times recently about an artists’ community which convinced me that I now know how I want to live as I get older.

Burbank Senior Artists’ Colony is a five-storey building in Los Angeles, offering one-bedroom apartments for rent to people aged over 55. The building also houses a digital film editing lab, galleries, an outdoor performance area, and art and sculpture studios.

Retired dental surgeon Gene Schklair, 80, sells the sculptures he makes at the Colony for up to $18,000 each. Suzanne Knode, another resident, took her first screenwriting course there in her early 60s. Her film about an elderly woman who robs a convenience store while balancing on her walker was cast and made by fellow residents. It has since made it onto the film festival circuit.

America has already seen a trend for senior housing communities on college campuses, offering residents and students the benefits of intergenerational contact and, increasingly, learning programmes for residents to study something new or take a further degree – as, for example, at Lasell Village.

Developments of this kind have been encouraged by a growing understanding of the benefits to health and happiness of learning new skills as you age (although this can make learning sound a bit like eating bran, good for you but not very pleasant). Art, too, requires study, to develop technique; it also offers a way to scrutinise and understand the world and a mode of self-expression; it is ageless, in all senses of the word.

In this country, there is a growing interest in art produced by older people, not just as therapy, but as mind-expanding pleasure for artists and audience. The idea that you could be creative at all hours of the day and night makes ageing something actively to aspire to. In California, two more Colony communities are in development. Let’s hope some enterprising developer sets up something similar in Britain soon.

The spanners are coming

Mary Byrne

The delightful Mary Byrne - but not everyone wants a job at Tesco

You’re made redundant or you retire in your 50s or 60s. You’re fit, smart, experienced, and still interested in working. Where on earth do you go to find a job?

The Americans have coined the expression ‘the Wal-Mart years,’ in recognition of the many people aged from 55 to 75 who take low paid, menial jobs in supermarkets. Perhaps they’d prefer to be doing something else but, unable to stop work financially or unwilling to give up the social benefits that come with it, this seems to be the best work on offer. Suppose, though, you’ve been managing for most of your career. Suppose you’re an expert in IT, or design, or finance and think you have something useful to contribute, perhaps to a nonprofit organisation or in a socially useful sector. Where on earth do you go to find a job?

Retirement Reinvented is a UK website intended to be a kind of Craigslist for jobs, paid and unpaid, of particular interest to the over-50s in a specific geographical area. The idea, according to one of its founders, Graham Ross Russell, is to encourage recruitment companies to use it as a resource, and to reach individuals a couple of years before or after they retire. At a time when large numbers of people – doubtless many of them older – are expecting to lose public sector jobs, the idea seems timely. Last week’s Equality and Human Rights Commission report, How Fair Is Britain? made the point that for the over 55s, Britain is often extremely unfair, not least because they are often unwillingly unemployed.

The Canadians are experimenting with a similar website, Thirdquarter, a two-year pilot project funded by four Canadian provincial Chambers of Commerce. The site hints at ambitions to be more than a clearing house, offering to advise individuals in assessing and presenting their experience, and companies and volunteer organisations on how to develop by making use of mature talent.

Clearly, there is an urgent need for new social institutions to help people find their way into a new stage of life. In the United States, a pilot programme from Civic Ventures, Encore Fellowships, has recently been backed by the government. Under the scheme, 10 corporate executives left their jobs in the private sector to spend six months or a year working with nonprofit organisations. Half of their $25,000 stipend was paid by their former employer, half by the nonprofit. The government has now made provision initially for 10 Encore Fellows in each state, with the public sector paying half the salary. One of the Encore Fellows calls himself and his colleagues ‘spanners,’ because they show that it’s possible to span the gap between retirement and old age.

Caroline Waters

Caroline Waters of BT

In this country, some employers are taking the agebomb seriously; at BT, for example, director of people and policy Caroline Waters explains that employees are urged to think start thinking flexibly about the possibilities for their life course as soon as they join the company. There is a deliberate effort not to see careers as linear, but as periods of work interspersed with non-work, which may come about for all sorts of reasons from parental responsibilities to voluntary work to studying for a degree. Waters would like to see a move away from the notion of a pension to a fund for life, which could be dipped into for career breaks at any age.

Cuts mean that Britain faces rising unemployment, which some will doubtless aim to disguise as early retirement. In truth, most people in their 50s and 60s are in no great hurry to stop working. The popularity and charm of the X Factor’s Mary Byrne notwithstanding, nor do they necessarily want to be on the tills as Tesco’s. At least two of the sectors which are attractive to older people – education and healthcare – are relatively recession-proof, and, if the government has any sense, green jobs will be too. It is clear that new institutions and resources are needed to help people make a transition into a new stage of life and work – to become spanners – and that they are needed pretty urgently.

Life: slide or roundabout?

roundaboutSomething enormous is happening. Two enormous things, in fact, and in time they may find a way to work together. That was the conclusion of this afternoon, which I spent in a very interesting discussion with people in cities all over the world, thanks (again) to Cisco.

One of the enormous things is demographic shift; the other is technology. Often they seem at odds (we hear that old people aren’t interested in computers, and that, anyway, technology is no substitute for face-to-contact). But they are not, in reality, opposite trends; together, they could transform our sense of who we are, change our understanding of what it means to live a long and rewarding life.

Thanks to Cisco’s telepresence technology, participants from Toronto, Washington, Almere, London, Geneva, Manchester and Brussels talked about ageing for 90 minutes without having to go anywhere much. (I got a bus.) And very interesting it was too – especially the point made by John Beard of the World Health Organisation, that we think in a thoroughly anachronistic way about the shape of human lives: youth and education, then work, then retirement. We imagine a life rather as a kind of slide, which you climb to the top (actually, this is my metaphor, but I think I’m representing him fairly) and then slither down through physical and mental and financial decline to death.

In fact, it would make much more sense to think of life as a series of roundabouts, which you could jump on and off at different points, dropping in and out of paid work to have children, write a book, volunteer, look after elderly parents, do a postgraduate degree, learn something new.

We need, in other words, to rethink life to account for the fact that people are living much longer and, on the whole, more healthily. This would doubtless help us make sense of the dead years, Marc Freedman’s ‘identity void’ between 55 and 80 when people aren’t really sure what they’re for.

It would also make far more sense for women. Annemarie Jorritsma, the mayor of Almere in the Netherlands, said she couldn’t believe that women are still expected to have children and forge their careers at the very same time. The only reason for this, when it is perfectly possible to work effectively into your seventies, is that it happens to suit thirtysomething men. Anne Marie says she never imagined she get to the age of 60 and this ridiculous paradox still be the case.

We have to hope that, somehow, economic necessity will help us to start thinking in terms of roundabouts , because it’s pretty clear we’d be a lot better off if we could all get off the unproductive and soul-destroying slides.

France vs America: who’s got it right about retirement?

Sartre and de Beauvoir

The French way of life? Sartre and de Beauvoir

Watching the street protests against raising the retirement age in France this week, I’ve felt oddly torn. All those students and workers look so glamorous in their intensity, so stylishly 1968-and-manning-the-barricades.

As doomsayers in Britain increasingly predict wars between the generations, it’s hard to imagine young people here standing up for their elders in the way of the young Frenchman on the news who claimed to be marching for the right of older people to do nothing: ‘There is a time when you work,’ he explained, ‘and a time when you rest.’ The British fantasy of French culture – food, wine, sex, a bit of philosophy and literature – does of course make the idea of French ‘rest’ seem extremely enticing.

Perhaps, I started to think, all those books coming out of the United States about an emerging stage of life between 50 and 80 – of new kinds of work, wisdom, productivity and spiritual and emotional reward – derive from a peculiarly American way of looking at the world, in which work is the ultimate good? Perhaps the attempt to construct a new life phase, of what we might call ‘wise work’, derives from a puritan work ethic/capitalist misapprehension that identity only really comes from employment?

In America, and, latterly, Britain, there is a developing narrative of the old as ‘greedy geezers’, unaffordable with their massive health and pension bills, needing to get back to work – except of course that they’re obsolete, opinionated, inflexible and haven’t got a clue about anything that’s going on.

This unattractive generational prejudice stems in part from an odd assumption that work is our highest calling. Not being able to put down your BlackBerry is a badge of pride; an empty diary is near-death. Older people can only have validity if they find a new way of being busy.

Unfortunately for the French, their alternative social contract looks increasingly rigid and unsustainable. You can’t have a thriving global economy in which lots of perfectly competent people do nothing except buy cheese and discuss existentialism simply because they happen to have reached a particular age.

In the end, of course, everyone is a little bit right: the French in acknowledging that work as currently organised is often rather thin and mean and reductive and anti-culture; and the Americans in looking for work at a later stage of life that would be none of these things, but would bring a deeper satisfaction and sense of contribution to the future. Their great insight is that longevity isn’t simply a matter of years tacked on at the end, but means that we are becoming a different kind of human than any that has existed before, with a need for a different rhythm of life and a new sense of life stages.

Having been writing about older people for a while now, it seems to me that quite often the best way to think about the ageing population is not to think about it at all. We want people to work longer? Then we need to think about work throughout the life course. People only want to stop work if what they do is demeaning, exhausting and undermining. There’s no inherent reason why it should be. Why not aim for rewarding and satisfying and creative work for everyone, with time off when it makes sense, rather than all at the end? Now that would be something worth taking to the streets for.