Wellbeing is a term that gets thrown around a lot. In some academic circles, it is used to describe happiness and life satisfaction. This definition has considerable uptake in the evaluations of programmes and services for older people.
In other circles, the term has wider health connotations: it features in the Care Act 2014 to acknowledge the impact impaired everyday living due to disability or ill health can have on wellbeing; economists have honed in on the idea of financial wellbeing; and gross national happiness (it is even abbreviated – GNH) in some countries is used to measure productivity.
What is clear is that wellbeing is a versatile concept and is utilised in wide-ranging environments. Where there is consensus, is that it measures how well a person or population is doing in specific area(s).
So, what is it we are trying to measure when we use the term wellbeing? Age UK needs to know how older people are doing, but not just in a single domain of life such as in finances or health but across all facets of life. A person is not made up of a series of disconnected domains but rather, all areas of life are connected. Our health affects our ability to be able to socialise and participate as does our finances. The local community within which we live can determine our opportunities to work, travel and be socially or culturally engaged. A broader conceptualisation of wellbeing brings the pieces of the person together to understand in a holistic sense how an older person is doing, and crucially, how a change in one area of life can impact upon other areas. The index shines a light on these areas of life: personal, social, health, financial and local –
And what we have found is that not all areas of life are equally important. Under our Social domain, participation in cultural activities such as in leisure, sports and arts are very important to wellbeing. Social participation is also important to wellbeing, more so than for example individual health status. Yet our Health and Personal circumstances, such as who we live with and whether or not we have caring responsibilities, are also strong determinants of wellbeing.
Age UK’s index provides information on the wellbeing of the UK’s older population (aged 60+). The index effectively operates as a barometer of wellbeing. The resulting score is usefully expressed as a percentage out of 100. A score of 100 would indicate that all older people are experiencing the best observed wellbeing and 0 the lowest wellbeing. The average score for the UK 60+ population is 53 out of 100 which means that the wellbeing of the older population as a whole lags behind by 47 percentage points. The index results can be broken down by each of the five domains to explain what is contributing to this score of 53.
Averages are useful at the population-level. However, the index also allows us to zoom in on particular groups of older people and even individuals, to measure their wellbeing and identify what is driving their level of wellbeing. Early analysis of the index has revealed two groups of older people who are experiencing very different levels of wellbeing; the bottom 20 per cent of individuals who are struggling and the top 20 per cent who are doing well. We are now gathering intelligence on the people who belong to these groups and what is contributing to their membership. The deciding factors in their level of wellbeing may not only indicate why some are struggling but also what can be done to increase their wellbeing.
Perhaps as positive as the topic itself, early findings reveal that there are individuals who are experiencing high wellbeing despite their otherwise disadvantageous circumstances such as having intense caring responsibilities, experiencing ill health and being in difficult financial situations. These individuals hold the key to understanding how wellbeing can be maximised.
Age UK will be exploring how we can ‘create a culture of wellbeing’ at its For Later Life Conference on 8th February 2017, early-bird tickets are available up until 30th November: www.ageuk.org.uk/forlaterlife
Marcus Green, Social and Economic Research Manager, Age UK