I’d be happier outside: the values of communities past and present for older disabled people

  • What do people value about the environment and communities they live in today?
  • How do their present communities compare to the place memories of their childhood?
  • Do people feel more, or less connected to their communities in today’s world?

These were questions we explored with groups of older people in the Mid Cornwall area in 2007 as part of a consultation programme on behalf of the Eden Project. The consultation took place as part of the early stages of Eden’s journey to build their third biome – the Edge; a building that will provide a platform for people to express their ideas and concerns for a future against the backdrop of global issues such as climate change, famine, de-forestation and poverty. The building will provide a platform from which communities and individuals (local, national and international) can express and share their thoughts and Eden was keen to ensure that people who are often excluded from consultation processes were also included in this process. The Sensory Trust’s brief was to consult with these groups in the area and to discover what people really valued today and whether they felt any connection between their community and the lives of communities in other parts of the world. In total, we spoke to 13 groups over a period of five weeks; approximately 200 older people.

Our technique with this project was a simple one – to sit down and chat with people. When a prompt was needed we used images that reflected a time in history when people had to live within limited means, although prompts were rarely required; we discovered that many older people simply enjoy the opportunity to chat with others and to reminisce.

The groups we spoke to were mainly older people with various disabilities including dementia, mobility impairments (including wheelchair users) and communication disabilities (for example,. aphasia). We wanted to involve older people as a generation that has lived through war-time and post-war periods; times of upheaval, of life-changing moments, of living with limited resources.

Landscapes transformed around them, large areas of open land were given over to growing food for the armed services; households grew food in their gardens and shared their crops with those in the community who had less. Some were relocated from familiar urban surroundings to the alien environment of rural life. People lived a life of coupons: food, clothes etc rationed out, re-used and re-cycled.

Would their recollections and current views reflect society’s interpretation of the older generation or would there be revelations in their observations of today’s communities?

Our initial concern was to avoid causing upset for anyone by bringing up emotional memories from the war time period. So we were cautious to keep the discussions based on how people lived within limited means in their own lives as well as the community. Naturally because of the period we were talking about people spoke about the loss of family members or friends or their fathers being away during the war. They spoke about up-rooting to new environments and losing their old homes. But as memories were shared, as common ground was discovered amongst them, we heard people laugh as they regaled stories, witnessed smiles as they remembered those lost and wistfulness for spent childhoods.

Many spoke of their childhood days as being happy. They were expected to contribute in some way to their family and to the community; through looking after younger siblings, or helping the local farmer at harvest time, or working in the local shop at the age of 14 to bring in much needed money into the home. They grew food in their own gardens and gave any spare to others (sometimes whether they wanted to or not - one lady said she could remember seeing people coming into the garden at night to pinch a few tomatoes!). They earned what they were given, in some form or another, but that was their life then.

Their outdoor experiences were normal parts of their lives. They played in the fields, the woods, the park, even in the street. They knew everyone in their street or village and felt safe in their environments - even those who had relocated from urban to rural environments. There was no fear of being attacked; you were told not to talk to strangers so you didn’t. They felt connected to nature because they spent a lot of time in it ; playing in it or working in it. They knew where their food came from because they either grew it, reared it themselves, witnessed what happened on the local farm or saw the meat hanging up in the local butchers shop window.

Discussing communities today there were comments about children spending too much time indoors on their Playstations and of families not spending quality time together (the main reason for this they felt was that parents priorities had altered and that both parents working long hours, making money to pay the mortgage, to have holidays and to buy those expensive gifts for birthdays and Christmas was more important than actually spending more quality time with their children).

Many were puzzled by the current general opinion that we live in a ‘nanny state’; they queried as to why more people today feel less safe in that case (that’s question for an article another day!). Most of the women said that they felt more wary when going out on their own today and wouldn’t go out in the dark on their own anymore. An example of this was the neighbour of one lady who didn’t go out unless her daughter picked her up. She had managed to get her on an organised trip through the local community centre once but said that the neighbour had rushed home as soon as they got back and hadn’t been on a trip since.

In answer to the question of concern over today’s communities, various people stated that it was their generation that created the issues in families today. One lady’s opinion was that as employment and therefore the opportunity to earn money increased, they tended to give their children the things that they had gone without in their childhood and this carried on through the generations. It was no wonder that children and young people today expected to be given material things rather than having to work for them or earn them in other ways.

As disabled adults there was a lot of frustration, almost bordering on anger, that they were not perceived to be of any value to their community. People saw the disability and not the person with years of skills and knowledge to share with others. One gentleman wanted to say “It’s ok, I still have life experiences and skills that I can share with you and add value to your life; being disabled isn’t always a bad thing”.

There was a lot of support for increasing farmers markets, for ‘out of school’ activity clubs that taught children about healthy eating and exercise, and for the fact that children now had more choice in outdoor activities. Many felt that schools and parents should work together more to provide opportunities for outdoor learning.

To sum up all the thoughts on past and present that we gained from the sessions I think one lady hit the nail on the head; she said:

“We’ve got an aging population now and there are many more older people we can’t be doing that much wrong with the food and drink... you can’t say everything’s bad. As you get older it’s easier to say everything was nicer when you were younger but that’s rose-tinted glasses. It was just a different way of life, not any better or any worse. If you had a room of mixed ages I’m sure you’d get a lot of different opinions as to how much better it is now compared to then. It’s just a different perspective. People tend to remember the good memories.”

As a finale to the sessions we asked people to write down a message that they would like to pass on to others, that they felt would help them to live richer lives. Here are some of those messages; some may be familiar to you, others may make you think. If you ever have the opportunity to sit and talk with older disabled people, I hope you get as much out of it as we did.


  • “Respect other people’s opinions, embrace diversity.”
  • “Hope, optimism. Always look on the bright side of life, de dum, de dum…”
  • “Know that you matter, your opinion counts and you have an effect, even if you don’t know it.”
  • “Take more time to talk to family and friends and walk as much as possible in the valley and the woods.”
  • “Get back to family values and spend more time enjoying family trips, walking, playing in the park and so on.”
  • “To live in a friendly neighbourhood with good friends and in a country environment.”