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Business and Finance

Grey sells: rebranding social isolation

Debbi Evans
What happens when an energetic former investment banker with big ideas sets out to change the way society sees old age?

Jill Shaw Ruddock is all brisk efficiency ‒ a fast-talking American who doesn’t suffer fools. She shakes my hand and tells me that, because I’m early, she’s going to be next door catching a bit of the art history class. “Kevin’s our best teacher,” she beams.

The Second Half Centre is a disarming combination of Oxbridge professors, volunteers and energetic senior citizens housed within a busy West London NHS facility. A “modern-day community centre”, it’s the physical manifestation of Ruddock’s campaign to rebrand old age. Along the corridors, posters designed by Ruddock featuring glamorous 50-something celebs proclaim: ‘This is what old age looks like.’

“People over 50 are really dominating theatre, the arts, medicine, entertainment…we’re dominating thought. Even though young is still what people worship, [kids are] copying us – they haven’t really created an identity. But we have an identity and we’re going to redefine what that means.

“Old means energetic, connected, inquisitive, vivacious – as long as we believe that and give people the opportunity to be it.” In fact, a pair of researchers in Switzerland recently discovered an attitude common among the very old they’ve dubbed ‘senior coolness’ ‒ characterised as a nonchalance, or indeed an indifference, to old age.

Growing better with age

Hidden at the heart of Ruddock’s manifesto is the considerably less glamorous issue of social isolation. Its effects on ill health have been extensively documented and include mental illness and increased blood pressure. Originally, though, her ambitions were primarily to write a book about ageing well, after she discovered that the persistent, inexplicable unhappiness she had been feeling turned out to be the menopause.

“I thought [that] only happened to old people, and I wasn’t old. So I started to research and I found out that something really positive happens to the female brain during that time. Once I’d tried [the theory] out on many doctors and found that no-one could argue with it, I had a thesis.

“What happens to the brain when you go through menopause is you first lose 100% of your progesterone and 80% of your testosterone – that’s phase one. In phase two, you lose 99% of your oestrogen. What are you left with? Testosterone. What does [that usually] do for men in the first half of their lives? Makes them confident, allows them to focus outside the home, gives them their energy and drive.

“It’s said that women grow better with age and there’s a reason for that; they become testosterone dominant. This is a very simple theory but [I’ve not found] one endocrinologist, GP or gynaecologist who could argue with it.”

Make it beautiful and light

After watching her previously “vivacious, amazing” mother age rapidly after retirement, Ruddock decided there had to be a better way of getting old. She wrote the bestselling The Second Half of Your Life ‒ now in its ninth edition ‒ as a manual for the over 50s. The book presents her thesis about the menopause alongside Jill’s ‘Five a Day’ ‒ essential components for ageing well ‒ which are passion (by which Ruddock means an interest in something), purpose, social connection, nutrition and physical exercise.

“All this [talk] of tackling social isolation without giving people a physical space to come to is just insanity. You can write all the reports you want ‒ The Silver Line [an older person’s helpline] is a wonderful idea ‒ but picking up the phone to talk to a stranger doesn’t cure isolation.”

Of course, Ruddock is too shrewd a businesswoman to put that on the posters. “I don’t talk about it, I don’t say ‘Come to the Second Half Centre, we tackle social isolation.’ Then I’d have five members and not 1,500. You have to package it in a way that’s beautiful and light.”

The business case

Ruddock’s background ‒ she headed an investment bank before moving on to charity fundraising ‒ has helped her make the business case. She has calculated that each Second Half Centre saves the NHS just under £650,000 and, combined with their proof of concept to date, this provides a compelling argument for expanding to other areas of London. It’s also testament to Ruddock’s energy that she’s managed to accrue 1,500 members in just over a year in spite of the hospital location.

“People come in, they see the ambulances… I don’t even know how we’ve been able to do it! We thought the NHS would embrace what we’re doing. All we wanted was for GPs to refer us to their patients who needed us; that never happened, the letter never went out.”

Outreach has been the single biggest challenge for Ruddock and the team. “We’ve had to work for every member.” But now word of mouth, not to mention Jill’s media and celebrity contacts, has helped build a real buzz around the centre. There are 68 hours of classes a week, which range from what you’d expect ‒ T’ai Chi and computer literacy ‒ to what you wouldn’t.

I spot Persian cooking and the comically-named musical theatre workshop, ‘Bus Pass to Broadway’. The average visitor to the centre is 73 and there are bursaries available for those who can’t afford to pay (around 40% of members attend under the scheme). Those who can afford it contribute between £5 and £6 per class, rather than the £3 suggested by the council.

“Even though we’re a charity, we want to become self-sustaining. Instead of the NHS doing £22 of revenue in a week, we’re doing £400. But forget the revenue – people are making friends! We bring people together, they talk, eat good food ‒ and because we’re not bleeding money, we can [look at ways of] taking this model forward.”

Further education

At that point, the café fills with students on a break from Dr Kevin Child’s Painting and Politics art history class. Ruddock rounds up a few particularly gregarious folk and pulls them to our table; her invites continue throughout the break. She swoops on anyone who looks as though they might be on their own. I meet Linda (above left; Jill is on the right), a former Falklands war artist in possession of a particularly firm handshake, who launches unprompted into a “terribly praiseworthy” review of the centre.

“I was a very busy and dedicated artist and then, for lots of domestic reasons, completely lost the plot. Whether you want to catch up on something or learn anew, you’ll find the kind of lecturers you’d be happy to get in a good university.”

Class in attendance

The freedom around the centre’s curriculum is a major benefit of being independent.

“Somebody came up to me and said, ‘I built Charles Saatchi’s personal collection’,” Jill says. “She’s coming to do a two-part workshop [on investing in art]. We just find these incredible people who appear out of the woodwork – they want to come and give back.”

Of course, Jill does hang around some very nice wood; the list of friends and supporters in the Centre literature namedrops numerous lords and ladies in addition to funds and foundations but, crucially, she has made accessible to all, the kind of activities and classes that are usually only available to a privileged few.

“Isolation is not just for poor people ‒ it affects all socioeconomic backgrounds. If you believe that like I do, why do I need to have adult social care be my only funder? They only care about the most needy. I care about the most needy too, which is why we offer a bursary. But ultimately if [a wealthy person] is isolated, they’re going to cost the NHS just as much money.”

Image credit: Lee Grubb

a pair of researchers in Switzerland recently discovered an attitude common among the very old they’ve dubbed ‘senior coolness’ ‒ characterised as a nonchalance, or indeed an indifference, to old age



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