Imagine Belfast – the festival of ideas and politics – sparks curiosity and engagement with social science and citizenship for a fascinating week every March (https://imaginebelfast.com/). Always one to encourage curiosity, I took children and husband to the ‘Campervan of Dreams’ on St. Patrick’s Day (https://imaginebelfast.com/events/campervan-of-dreams/). Sitting in a vintage campervan, both generations (children and midlife) were encouraged to declare their dreams which were then attached to the dreamcatcher. My dream was simple – that Belfast would come to realise what a brilliant city it is. This aspiration for my city was in no small part inspired by having participated in another Imagine Belfast event at Ulster University the previous day.
The event was organised by a PhD student on the ARK Ageing programme, another bright and curious native of Belfast, Alexandra Chapman, who had teamed up with her fellow Ulster University PhD student, Ciara Fitzpatrick. The theme of the event was to imagine the future for older people, with a particular focus on policy innovation. Teams of activists (including many older people) students and policy-makers were challenged to brainstorm for their future selves. Each team was expected to produce a policy idea they could recommend to a team of judges. All credit to Ciara and Alexandra for assembling a panel of judges that really need to hear from those affected by the social policy-making: the head of health and social care and his deputy, the CEO of the Commissioner for Older People’s Office and the Policy Officer of Age NI made up the panel of judges. Anne-Marie Gray from Ulster University and I, from Queen’s University Belfast, were the academics – the idealists in the group, as it turned out.
The experience of judging a set of brainstormed ideas, brought home to me that the future of old age must be imagined now. It also reminded me of how policy planners have a difficult job to do when they must plan for an eventuality that can be predicted with only partial accuracy. One only has to glance at Michael Teitelbaum’s work on the impossibility of projections given the instability of migration and fertility to see this (http://www.law.harvard.edu/programs/lwp/people/staffBios/LWPstaff_michael_teitelbaum.html).
What is crystal clear though, is that we need imaginative planning if we want a future that is based on basic principles of human rights, respect, dignity and intergenerational solidarity. Some of the services that we may need in old age, may be expensive (home care) while others are absolutely free (respect). The fact that respect for old age influences how much we are willing to invest in services for older people is where imagination comes in. The winning idea to develop age-friendly schools where older people help children with numeracy and literacy, and where children are trained as dementia friends demonstrated how far a little imagination can take you. The idea has already been successfully piloted by Linking Generations (http://linkinggenerationsni.com/age-friendly-school-project-2/). The future of old age, like the peace that has been achieved in our city, is just a matter of political will, perseverance and a little imagination. I invite all policy-makers to enter the campervan of dreams and imagine the future we all deserve…