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Dying, Ageing … and Policy Labs

A blog by Joe Wood, who is a postdoctoral researcher on the SAACY project. This blog is brief introduction to me, some of the things I’ve been thinking about since I started in April, and what I’m currently doing as part of the project.

Ageing and Dying

I’m interested in how we talk about medicine and care — in public, in clinical practice, and in policy — with particular attention to pain, ageing, and the end of life. My most recent research looked at how practitioners and academics working in hospice and palliative care talk about pain at the end of a person’s life and the effects that might have on how we understand, interact with and exist as dying people.

Dying and death might not seem like what you want to be thinking about if you’re trying to challenge the pessimism around the ageing process! However, both older people and people who are dying (irrespective of age) often come up against the same issues. Mainstream culture today fetishizes youth and vitality in ways that stigmatise those who do not fulfill its norms. Just like how doctors would sometimes ignore dying people in the 1950s and 1960s before the advent of the modern hospice movement, today older people are often written off as ineffectual, slow-thinking and not contributing to society. This kind of ableist stigma can lead to loneliness and even what sociologists call ‘social death’, where people become cut off from others much earlier than their physical death.

Both dying and ageing also present individuals with issues of meaning. A greater sense of individualism in richer countries in the global North encourages people to rely on a sense of self constituted by memories and narratives of the past. People who are dying therefore sometimes find it reassuring to look back over their life and spend time with their memories, but can equally find that they are physically or mentally unable to be the author of their own life. Older age can similarly focus people’s thoughts on the past, particularly when they are less able to do some of the activities they used to enjoy, in ways that can be consoling or depressing. The significance of memories and story-telling is additionally challenged when someone is living with dementia.

In my own research for SAACY, I hope to explore some of these issues, thinking about the role of social assumptions and narratives when you are getting towards the end of your own story. I’m also interested in the way that the much-touted denial of death in the global North intersects with pessimism about ageing. Might a healthier relationship with the fact that we’re going to die help us find more to live for into old age?

SAACY Elderly image
SAACY Elderly image

Policy Labs

Aside from my own research, in my first six months with SAACY one of the main things I’ve been working on is our first Policy Lab which takes place at the end of September. Alongside Martina and colleagues at the Policy Institute here at King’s, I am organising a day-long workshop to discuss how we can try to begin to think differently about the ageing process. Rather than seeing ageing as an inevitable process of decline that happens when you reach a certain age, is it possible to think of ageing as a life-long process of natural changes? Maybe ageing can also be understood to involve growing taller as a child, getting hairy at puberty, and physical changes that happen throughout adulthood, from the menopause to reductions in kidney function to simply having a few more wrinkles?

In the SAACY team, we think that understanding ageing like this is both more realistic because it follows the cellular science of ageing, and less pessimistic because it separates old age — which has the possibility to be just as fulfilling and enjoyable as other periods in life — from age-related diseases like dementia or cancer. The Policy Lab will bring together experts from national and local charities, academia, clinical medicine, policy-making and our Lived Experience Panel to talk through the evidence and try to think up new implementable ways of beginning to think about ageing as a lifelong process of change.

I’ve been putting together a briefing pack to send to attendees full of evidence from biological science, social science and the arts and humanities so that our experts at the Policy Lab can start off on the same page on the day. It should be an exciting opportunity to think about how we can tackle the pessimism associated with ageing and later in the year I will put out an update on this blog about how it went.

In the meantime, do check out the SAACY website, get in touch with us by e-mail. We’d love to hear from you!

In this story

Joe Wood

Joe Wood

Research Associate (Policy and Engagement – Ageing Studies)


The Sciences of Ageing and the Culture of Youth (SAACY) is a project funded by a UK Research and Innovation Future Leaders Fellowship. It looks at how we talk and think about ageing and how…

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