Earlier this year, the charity Age UK published its Index of Wellbeing in Later Life data that measures the wellbeing of the country's older population. The findings from 15,000 people aged 60 and over were surprising, and showed that age isn't necessarily a barrier to living well.

The report's lead author, Dr Marcus Green, admits that 'wellbeing' is a difficult term to define. “People have all sorts of different ideas about what it means,” he says. “It could be 'happiness' or 'a sense of purpose'; but it's also connected to health and finances. 'Wellbeing' is a very busy space.”

The Index shows that while good health and sound finances do improve wellbeing among older people — along with a number of other factors including personality, level of education, work, civic participation, marriage and emotional stability — they aren't top of the list. The leading determinant to wellbeing among those surveyed was, in fact, their participation in creative and cultural events.

Social networks

This didn't come as a surprise to Green. “It's not simply creative and cultural activities that older people enjoy — although these can be fulfilling in themselves,” he says. “We think the main reason for their importance is that older people can take part in them with friends. That's not new because we know that social networks in later life are crucial.”

Physical activity is second on the list of wellbeing indicators. Again, Green believes this is because there is a social element to exercise that is attractive to anyone of any age. “We measured a whole raft of physical activities among the older generation: cycling, golf, even water sports and those aged 75-plus who play seven-a-side football. Although some exercises were solo pursuits, we found that many of them gave people a chance to keep fit with established friends and/or make new friends.”

Maximise wellbeing

And while older people's wellbeing is certainly affected by a diagnosed health condition (or conditions), the Index shows that it's possible to maximise wellbeing despite dealing with health concerns. “Some conditions are very debilitating, in which case the opportunity to do things that are good for your wellbeing are either decreased or non-existent,” says Green. “But across the sample we found that people are generally getting by or managing their conditions with or without the support of a healthcare professional or their family.”

Nevertheless, says Green, there is a connection between a person's physical health and their mental health. “There are interconnections between all of the indicators on our list,” he says. “For example, if an individual's health was to decline, it would have an effect on their ability to take part in physical activity. And physical activity is better for your physiological and mental health, which as we know, is a contributing factor to wellbeing.”

Government responsibility

The report also compares the attributes of the top 20% of the wellbeing distribution with those in the bottom 20%. Those in the top 20% scored higher on thinking skills, had more qualifications, were outgoing, had a good network of friends, were physically active, didn't have a long standing health condition or financial worries and were generally satisfied with their local public services. There are some aspects of the research that the report's authors found worrying, however. For instance, older people in the bottom 20% weren't involved in cultural or social activities and didn't have a good social network.

“The Index makes clear that there is a large group of older people in this country who are experiencing low wellbeing,” says Green. “Of those in the bottom fifth of the wellbeing distribution, 12.5% say they have no friends and 85% say they are not involved in social activity. Cuts to public services and issues with lack of community-based care are a big part of the problem. So there is a responsibility on government here, because it's plain that there is a lot more that can and must be done to increase the wellbeing of older people in our society.”