"Ageing" is a relative concept; we are all ageing every second.
"Old age" can be similarly hard to define, given that people age at different rates, and with different effects. It may be taken as a physical description: having lived for a certain number of years, certain changes ensue in our bodies and minds. It may also be taken as a social description, usually linked to our retirement from work, and our subsequent disengaging with the economic world.
Different societies deal with its ageing members in different ways, which in turn means that ‘ageing’ may be understood in different manners. People with learning disabilities can age at dramatically different rates depending on their individual disability and circumstances, meaning that chronological age cannot be taken as a reliable indicator of age-related needs.
Many people with learning disabilities are now living to a much greater age when compared to previous generations. Those who live past their third decade are likely to live into old age. However, people with learning disabilities have a much greater propensity to develop health problems (both physical and mental) when compared to the general population, and this propensity is only added to by the effects of ageing.
Depending on their individual disability, people may be affected in different ways. People with Down’s syndrome, for example, tend to age at a faster rate than the general population, often showing signs of ageing in their 30s. They may also be affected by dementia from a much earlier age, and at a faster rate.
Many people with milder disabilities, however, can remain mentally and physically active into their 80s and beyond, with the challenges of ageing being similar to those of the general population.
Perhaps the most impactful change concerns health. As our bodies change, we are forced to adapt ourselves to their changing realities and needs.
Physically, everyone will begin to experience problems with their body by a certain age. These problems are dependent on genetics, lifestyle, and chance, and are therefore unique to each individual. Health problems earlier in life will often impact on later experiences, meaning that people with specific health needs may find these issues becoming greater as they age.
Planning for the demands of old age will therefore need to begin earlier for some people: a fact which reinforces the necessity of regular health checks. For some, planning for ‘old age’ may need to begin by the age of 50.
The impact of ageing on mental health should not be ignored. The stress caused by physical health problems, lifestyle changes, and/or simply reaching a certain point in life can be considerable, and can manifest itself in mental health issues. These may not be as immediately obvious as problems with physical health, but can be debilitating.
Ageing can also be socially challenging. Whether through retirement, ill health, or merely a progressive ‘slowing down’, many older people find themselves increasingly disengaged from society, and may feel lonely. This can be especially true for people with learning disabilities, many of whom have small social circles, and may rely on support to make and maintain these connections.
As a by-product of the fact that many people with learning disabilities are living longer, it is a relatively new but steadily increasing phenomenon for people with learning disabilities to outlive their parents. This has the additional impact that many people thus lose their parents and their primary caregivers at once; this is a situation which must be planned for.
The subject of housing for older people with learning disabilities also presents certain challenges, but many of these become more in line with the needs of the general population. Mobility aids are a common requirement, as is more regular access to home-based support.