Age UK’s Index of Wellbeing in Later Life (’WILL’) provides new and substantive information about what matters most for a good later life. The evidence offers a first step towards helping all of us get closer to achieving it, whoever we are and whatever our circumstances may be.
So, what is it we are trying to measure when we use the term wellbeing in later life? Wellbeing is a term that is commonly used to refer to happiness and life satisfaction. It is in fact a wider, more versatile concept pointing to a state in which an individual is financially comfortable, healthy and engaged in meaningful activities. It points to a stock of personal, familial and community resources that help individuals cope well when things go wrong.
The WILL Index identifies five broadly defined areas of life of the UK’s population aged 60 and over, namely: Personal; Social; Health; Financial and Local. And emerging among the most important factors is participation in social, creative, cultural and civic activities. These include going to a cinema, museum, historical site, taking part in arts activities, events or play, being member of a social or sports club, or being active in a community or voluntary group. A common feature across these activities is that they have a social element which prevents isolation and loneliness.
Personal circumstances, such as who we live with, whether we connect with younger generations, and whether or not we have good cognitive skills are also strong determinants of wellbeing in later life.
Factors such as being in good health and having enough money are also shown to be important but not to the same level as social engagement. Altogether, we identify approximately 40 indicators of wellbeing in later life, as can be seen in figure 21.
There are also older people in poor health and finances who are experiencing higher wellbeing. It appears that these individuals have built and protected their social networks and benefit from the support of their family, friends and community and participate in social, civic and cultural activities. These individuals hold the key to understanding how wellbeing can be maximised so that as many older people as possible can lead a fulfilling later life.
And many of these individuals are in their 80s and 90s emphasising that age is not a barrier to wellbeing. So, the more likely explanation is their experience across the life course. The individuals with low wellbeing may have lived in areas of deprivation with a lack of employment opportunities, poor facilities, environmental hazards such as air pollution, and some poor lifestyle choices. It is a vicious circle as individuals in this group lack the personal, social and financial resources to mitigate the effects of poor health and inadequate pension on their everyday life and wellbeing.
Five steps were required in constructing the WILL Index. They can be broadly termed as: (1) developing a conceptual model by undertaking a literature review of existing studies; (2) Deciding on the best data source, the Understanding Society survey, mainly for the number of people included in the sample, its representativeness, range of questions asked, its UK-wide focus and longitudinal nature; (3) Identifying a list of significant factors and their relative importance for wellbeing of British older population (using Structural Equation modelling); 4) Grouping the significant factors from the previous step into five domains (using the method of principal component analysis) and 5) Developing an Index of Wellbeing in Later Life (using appropriate aggregation methods, as used in the Active Ageing Index ‘AAI’).
One of the novelties of the modelling work in steps 2 and 3 is that it is performed on individual level data. This enables us to determine wellbeing scores for each individual in the dataset. This in turn makes it possible to analyse unequal experiences of wellbeing among older people. This offers improvement over other similar work hitherto, such as the AAI3 and the Global AgeWatch Index ‘GAWI’4.
The WILL Index calculated in the final step allows us to account for multiple indicators of wellbeing in one single but easy to understand aggregated summary measure. It includes tiers such as domains and indicators, which are drawn from all the previous steps. The Index calculated is much more comprehensive – covering all aspects of older people’s lives – than what a single indicator can capture. The Index summarises differences across subgroups of older population and will help us monitor changes in overall wellbeing over time and between subgroups of British older people.
The standout feature of the methods used is that it involved consultation with experts, older people and key stakeholders at every stage of its work. An iterative process was followed, as we went back to experts several times to present our findings and check on interpretations, re-analysed the data and models based on input from experts (including older people), and further examined the literature. These consultations helped us benefit from the knowledge of other gerontologists and interpret the key findings of our statistical modelling in relation to policies and programmes for older people.
Submitted by Asghar Zaidi, University of Southampton on Wednesday, 22nd March 2017