I awaited the Lancaster conference with a mixture of emotions. I had long intended to be part of this 50th anniversary event, but I had hoped it would be in person in Lancaster itself, not ‘connected remotely’. So although I was excited at the thought of being present for the first time at an online conference, I was also anxious, especially about actually contributing to it. I was sure something would go wrong and indeed it did, as at the welcome reception on the first evening I could hear what was going on but could not see or make myself appear or be heard. Thankfully that was the only disappointment for me during the whole of the three days. In the session in which I gave a presentation the next morning I was very fortunate to have a patient and flexible chair in Andrew Harding who had the foresight to have pre-recorded my presentation just in case of difficulty.
I hadn’t attended a BSG conference since Newcastle in 2016. So I was curious to see whether there would be any marked changes. Of course I can only comment on the sessions I attended myself. But I definitely got the impression that Lancaster 2021 was a very successful conference and that the BSG conference has retained its strong sense of friendliness and collegiality.
I thought the subjects and speakers of the three keynote presentations, from Britain, Europe and North America, were very well chosen. They were very varied in content, original in subject matter but also relevant to contemporary concerns. The Pendle witch trials of the 17th century are not only of local and historical interest; hearing about them makes you painfully aware of the deep roots of sexism as well as ageism. The research on ‘Blue Zones’, where more people than average live very long and healthy lives, was a new topic for me and raised many interesting thoughts about the kind of world we should be aiming to create. The closing keynote presentation was in fields of research in which I have had experience myself, especially on preserving narrative identity in dementia care settings. I thought the key challenge was powerfully presented: how can we tell back persons’ stories to them in ways that they can recognize?
I don’t remember attending a ‘flagship’ symposium at a BSG conference before. We were presented with two on the very first afternoon, which set an appropriately serious tone to the conference. The first, on the persistence of poverty and inequality in old age, was very sobering indeed, acknowledging the efforts already made to understand the social forces at work which produced unfairness, but pressing for much more analysis of the operation of power in the real world. The second on environments of ageing was also stimulating, stressing the multidisciplinary character of this area of research. Discussion of collaborative housing initiatives highlighted how important the management of communal spaces is to combatting isolation. This brought me back to my early days as a researcher in the 1970s investigating the value of sheltered housing initiatives both in England and in the Netherlands, and to the huge variation and ambiguity there was at that time in understandings of the role and appropriate job description of wardens in communal housing.
Of the symposia I attended there were three that I particularly appreciated. The first was on the obviously topical subject of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on older people and was suitably wide ranging in its settings and research methods. It highlighted problems of information fatigue, dangers of stigmatisation and the difficulty of contacting what had been previously easily approachable health services, as well as the need to lessen barriers to use of the internet and to access to green spaces. I also enjoyed the reflections from the team that conducted the highly imaginative project on the ‘Ageing of British Gerontology’ about the interviews and portraits which they had assembled. The stress on ‘inequalities in ageing’ brought me back to the key message of the earlier flagship symposium. But perhaps the symposium I enjoyed the most was the one on caring and compassionate communities presented by a team from the ‘Vrije Universiteit Brussel’. I thought this was an outstanding team effort and I learned a lot about an important developing initiative. It was striking to see how principles from palliative medicine, such as normalising experiences of loss and grief and focusing on reducing suffering, were being applied to building real caring communities.
There is much work involved in setting up successful BSG conferences and the first online one offered what must have seemed unimaginable extra challenges. But from what I could see Carol Holland and her team had met them all superbly.
Peter G. Coleman, Southampton