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Age UK warns of the risks of getting into a self-destructive rut as we age, with widespread ageism being a big part of the problem

By: Age UK
Published on 22 March 2018 12:01 AM

Approaching one and a half million over 65s feel they don’t have control of their lives and almost a million say that life rarely or never has any meaning for them 

New analysis from Age UK shows that almost one and half million over 65s (1.465m) feel that what happens in their life is determined by factors beyond their control; and almost a million (936,642) say that their life rarely or never has any meaning. These feelings are more prevalent among the oldest age groups, with nearly 1 in 5 over 85s thinking their life rarely or never has meaning, compared to 1 in 10 aged 55-65.

The charity is therefore calling on everyone to do more to support older people in recognising their self-worth, as well as calling on older people themselves to try to take steps to avoid getting into a self-destructive rut, from which it can be extremely difficult to escape.

A new Age UK report, 'Struggling to Cope with Later Life', explores these issues in greater depth and includes a checklist of top tips for older people and those around them, on how to avoid getting dragged down as they age, and how to get to a better place again if this happens.

Based on interviews with older people, the research finds that some who have led busy and purposeful lives can end up feeling that their contributions are long forgotten and that they don't count for anything anymore. The interviewees explain how they struggle to connect to the wider world and lack motivation to look after themselves, potentially undermining their health as a result. All these people lacked hope that life could change for the better and they were well and truly 'stuck' in the difficult situations they were in, despite in some cases the efforts of others around them – professionals, families and friends - to help.

In many cases the experience of difficult events in later life such as bereavement or redundancy had brought on their sense of malaise, but for some battling these feelings had been a life-long challenge which they had brought with them into old age.

Against this context it is important to note that depression affects 22% of men and 28% of women aged 65 plus and that 85% of older people with depression receive no help at all from the NHS , so these are really big problems for a significant proportion of older people in this country.

The interviews with older people in the report showed that another factor dragging them down was their perception that our society does not really value older people, and generally takes a highly negative view of ageing. This formed the difficult backdrop to the problems they themselves were experiencing and helped to compound them, intensifying their feelings of hopelessness. Whereas more resilient older people may be able to shrug such negative perceptions off, these more vulnerable individuals were clearly unable to do so.

The charity is therefore hoping that the report will raise public awareness that ageism really hurts some older people and diminishes their quality of life.

The charity's top tips for older people who get stuck in a rut and those who care about them or work with them are:

1. Listen to older people's histories and value their contributions

2. Understand the causes and spot the danger signs

3. Use a person-centred approach that starts where older people are

4. Family and friends can be a life line – support them to be so

5. Find a way to return purpose to life

6. Emotional support often needs backing up with practical action

7. Professionals can make a big difference – but need the time to be able to do so

Caroline Abrahams, Age UK's Charity Director said:

'Everyone has their off days but for a significant minority of older people life appears to hold very little meaning or pleasure at all, and an unfortunate few get stuck in a self-destructive rut from which they just cannot escape. It is in all our interests to change this and Age UK is firmly of the view that everyone deserves to be valued for who they are today, as well as who they have been in the past and may become in the future, regardless of their age.

'We can all do more to support older people we know and even when an older person has lost hope there are things that can be done to help, practically and emotionally, as our report shows. But perhaps the most important message from our research is that we all need to realise that the ageism that is all too frequent in our society does real harm to some older people and makes them miserable and even unwell, even if more resilient older individuals are apparently unscathed.

'It's brilliant that in many ways our society is a lot more tolerant and inclusive than it has ever been before, and yet it is still seen as socially acceptable by some to stereotype and denigrate older people in ways that would be considered totally unacceptable if the same behaviour occurred in the context of gender or race. Our report reinforces the fact that it's high time ageism was consigned to the past, along with all other forms of discrimination."

Case Studies

These quotes by older people are from the report 'Struggling to cope with later life'

'Once you pass a certain age, you're written off aren't you. People don't want to employ you. [You're] too old. Not very nice is it...the sooner you die, the less of a burden you are to society... that's what I am in reality'

'I'm so restricted and reliant on my daughter. Although she says she doesn't mind, for me that's not the point.'

'Some days I think "I don't want to be here", I feel life would be easier for my son...I do rely on him a lot... it breaks my heart to think it feels as though his life is on hold for me...'

'I was a bit of a social butterfly until about 7 years ago when I had to take in my grandchildren actually ... I just completely lost my social network...'

'The lady next door, she has dial-a-ride and she goes to Sainsbury's every Friday. The thing is, it would be nice for me to do that....but the driver said you have to go online...if only things were a bit easier. I think to myself 'oh I can't be bothered.'

'I have to snap myself out of it, go out for a walk or a wander....There are days where I could spend hours painting or drawing, keeping myself amused. Sometimes time can fly by - I can spend hours doing a painting or a picture. Then I'll get fed up with that. You have to motivate yourself don't you. But it is hard sometimes. You just let it go, let it go.'

Notes to Editors

Age UK
Age UK is a national charity that works with a network of partners, including Age Scotland, Age Cymru, Age NI and local Age UKs across England, to help everyone make the most of later life, whatever their circumstances.

In the UK, the Charity helps more than seven million older people each year by providing advice and support. It also researches and campaigns on the issues that matter most to older people. Its work focuses on ensuring that older people: have enough money; enjoy life and feel well; receive high quality health and care; are comfortable, safe and secure at home; and feel valued and able to participate

Age UK's subsidiary charity, Age International, supports older people globally in over 30 developing countries by funding programmes such as vital emergency relief and healthcare and campaigning to raise awareness and change policies.

Age UK is a charitable company limited by guarantee and registered in England (registered charity number 1128267 and registered company number 6825798). Charitable services are provided through Age UK and commercial products are offered by the Charity's Community Interest Company (CiC) (registered company number 1102972) which donates its net profits to Age UK (the Charity).


(i)Age UK calculation based on English Longitudinal Study of Ageing Wave 6 (2012-13) and Wave 7 (2014-15) data and ONS mid-year 2013 and 2015 population estimates.
(ii)Age UK (2016). Hidden in plain sight: The unmet mental health needs of older people. Age UK, London. Available from [Accessed 20/02/18].

For more information

Contact the Age UK Media team on 020 3033 1430 during office hours (Mon-Fri 08:30-17:30) or for out-of-hours media support please email 

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Last updated: Feb 18 2022

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