“Wellbeing incorporates physical wellbeing, emotional wellbeing, mental wellbeing and mental health, all sort of things”, says Yogesh when describing what wellbeing means to her. This sentiment is echoed in many of the stories in this feature article, from Dave’s snapshot story on the importance of feeling content to Gaynor’s comments on “having a good laugh” with loved ones to Kate’s acknowledgment of the role of financial stability in enabling people to live the lives that they want to. Emerging from within these stories we can see how a variety of social, cultural, educational and economic factors bear influence on people’s wellbeing.
The older people in these stories describe a diverse range of activities that contribute to keeping them well. The importance of the outdoors to people’s wellbeing is something that has emerged as a strong theme. Margaret, for example, describes how taking her dog for a walk in Heaton Park has made her exercise more and how seeing a beautiful view at the park gives her “a big boost”. Similarly, Diana states how her wellbeing is supported by “appreciating this lovely planet that we live on” by being outdoors and spending time with her horse. In-line with this, Marie talks about how going for walks helps support both her physical and mental health. For Catherine, the seaside is an important place for her to visit, and for Janice and Margaret, being able to do their garden is an important aspect of their lives. As well as the outdoors, other activities are also key to people’s wellbeing, from cooking meals to having a drink with friends. As Charles describes, he is involved in a wide range of activities that keep him active. In addition to his love for playing music and creating art, Charles also co-ordinates a writing group and gets involved in sponsored activities for charity. What is interesting, as Joan observes, is that many of these activities are free or relatively inexpensive. For Joan, the simple pleasure of “feeling the sun on her face after a cold winter” and a “good night’s sleep” add to her sense of wellbeing.
Although some of the older people acknowledge that the types of activities that they do, or the ways that they do them has changed as they have gotten older, it is as Margaret states, about “doing what you can while you can”. Similarly, Pauline describes how setting herself realisable goals and achieving them helps her to feel content. Underpinning these stories is the idea that a range of different activities can contribute to notions of wellbeing. Providing people with opportunities to learn new things and to enhance their physical health and get outdoors, all support this. It is worth noting, that parallels can be drawn between these findings and the experiences of the older people in Gdansk, Poland who have been involved in an activities programme specifically designed for older members of the community. People in these stories engage in different types of activities from Nordic walking to language classes, and these experience support them to make to new social connections as well as keeping them physically and intellectually active.
Having a Purpose & Helping Others
Activities such as the ones outline above, and also having a paid job or engaging in voluntary work provide people with a sense of purpose. As Bhim describes, it is important for him to be involved in paid or unpaid work that he enjoys in order to keep active. Similarly, Christine talks about how her voluntary work, such as a peer mentoring scheme she is involved in, gives her something to do that “gets her out and about”. Without such opportunities Christine feels that she “wouldn’t have something to get up for in the morning” as she lives on her own. After losing her husband who she had been a carer for, Margaret describes how the responsibility of owning a dog meant that she had to carry on and go out in order to meet her pet’s needs. For many of the people in these stories, having a sense of purpose was a contributing factor to their overall wellbeing.
Talking about his current work at Manchester Carers Forum, Dave says that it gives him a lot of reward and makes him “feel alive again”. Dave’s work is important to him as it gives him an identity other than as a carer, and he sees it as a form of ‘respite’. Underpinning the sense of reward that Dave gets from working is his ability to use his skills and knowledge to help others. This sense of ‘giving something back’, is also a key focus of people’s stories in this article. Both Bhim and Yogesh have been (and still are) actively involved in community work, which has included running informal education programmes in community settings and delivering cultural awareness sessions. For Bhim doing something that “could increase the welfare of the community” makes him happy. Similarly, Yogesh talks about how hearing about the continued impact that her community work is achieving adds to her happiness in later life. Charles echoes this sentiment when explaining his reasons for his charity work; he says he does it to “give back to the community what [he] has got out of the community”.
One of the stories that Andreas tells about what gives him and his wife Kate joy is about how in their retirement they had the opportunity to help their older neighbours. As he describes, he used to act as a neighbour’s taxi when they needed to go to appointments, and he and his wife would also invite another neighbour who lived alone around for dinner. These acts of generosity made them feel “joyous”, and its was good for them to “be able to help”. Similarly, Sue talks about how her wellbeing is supported both by learning new things and by using these new skills and knowledge to help others. She describes how she encourages her grandchild to find out answers to things using new technology and that she is all about helping others. In Sue’s words, “I might be 70 years of age but I’m still young, I’m still young at heart and I’ve got plenty of enthusiasm and that’s what keeps me going”.
Journeys To Wellbeing
It is also important to remember that achieving a state of wellbeing is not necessarily permanent. In Catherine’s story, she describes how she is still on a journey to finding wellbeing and at this particular moment can’t see what would help her find it other than a “magic wand”. Looking at Dave’s story, we see how his relationship with wellbeing is a journey. During his life he has overcome issues with addiction in order to achieve the happier life and healthier lifestyle, both physically and mentally, that he currently has. Whilst not being “a religious man”, Dave does acknowledge how his faith helps him through difficult times.
At difficult times in people’s lives having a good connection with family and friends can help people handle the pressures, stresses and problems that they are experiencing. As grandmothers, both Gaynor and Pauline talk about how their grandchildren give them joy and support their mental wellbeing. In her story, Pauline states, she would “be lost without them” but because she sees them all the time, they help her to feel happy and put “a big smile on [her] face”. This point about how people’s wellbeing is linked to those around them should not be overlooked. As Sue acknowledges, as a carer her own happiness is linked to that of the family member that she cares for; if they are happy, then so is she.
In Christine’s story, we can see how key friends in her life have provided the support that she needed to get through negative periods. The loss of one of these close friends coupled with other life pressures led to her having a breakdown and to her feeling like her “world fell apart”. However, Christine currently has new friends that enhance her sense of wellbeing through simple, everyday activities such as “talking about daft things”. This is the same for Catherine, who doesn’t know how she would have managed without the support of key friends she has met at Manchester Carers Forum. In-line with this, Gaynor too acknowledges the close bonds she has made through being part of the Carers Forum and through their support has “come out of [her] shell” and “found [her] voice”. Looking beyond Manchester, we can see how such community support and groups play vital roles in supporting people on their wellbeing journeys. In Marja’s story, for example, we hear about how a Kainuu community craft group supported her in her new life as a retired widow by giving her an activity to do and a chance to meet people.
Keeping Well: An individual journey
Whilst key trends have emerged from these stories such as keeping active, the importance of having a purpose, the joy of giving and the need for a strong support network, it is important to remember that why these things are important to people’s wellbeing is often unique and personal to the individual. For example, Sue’s love of learning is related to her not having such opportunities in her earlier life, and the reason why friends and family are so important to Gaynor and Christine are explained in their stories by the adversities that such connections have enabled them to overcome. Similarly, the reason why walking her dog is vital to Margaret’s wellbeing is not just because it gets her out in the fresh air and provides exercise, but also that the responsibility of having to walk a dog spurred her on to get out of the house and socialise after her husband’s death. More so, it is important not to underestimate the importance of ‘time for me’ in people’s overall wellbeing. As a number of the stories have indicated such as Gaynor’s and Dave’s, finding time within busy lives in which people can connect to themselves is important to people’s sense of self and identity. Seeing wellbeing then as a highly personalised experience helps us to understand and truly appreciate its multifaceted nature. As Yogesh states, wellbeing is “a very complex thing, it is a very changeable thing, it changes from day-to-day, from individual-to-individual, to circumstances-to-circumstances”, and when looking at what keeps older people well, it is important to keep this in mind.
Written by Matt Bell, Catherine Lowe, Gaynor Morgan, Joan Rutherford, Sue Samson, Hayley Trowbridge and Dave Williams
The stories in this feature article are part of project commissioned by the Older Adults Who Are Well programme that is delivered by a partnership including Manchester City Council, the NHS and the Carers’ Forum. To gather insights into what keeps older people well, they commissioned a Community Reporter programme that saw older people from in and around Greater Manchester trained as Community Reporters who told their own stories of wellbeing and then went on to gather other older people’s experiences. Working with ICR Trainers, the older people reviewed the stories gathered and identified the key findings from them that are presented in this feature article. A short film that weaves together the key trends from the stories into a thematic edit can be found here: https://youtu.be/jkO2p4oRpwk