Balloon debate: the challenges of ageing

9 March 2010

 Balloon centenary at the Honorable Artillery Company, 1884 / Wellcome Images
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Balloon centenary, 1884 / Wellcome Images

If you had a million pounds to tackle the challenges associated with ageing, what would you spend it on? This was the question posed to four distinguished speakers in the “Balloon Debate” on Ageing at Wellcome Collection. In a balloon debate each speaker in turn argues their point while sitting in an imaginary hot air balloon, hovering above the ground. At the end of each round the audience votes to turf one of them out of the balloon, Big Brother style. Then comes another round of speeches, followed by another vote and so on until just one speaker remains: the victor.

In our balloon were: Andrew Harrop of Age Concern and Help the Aged (soon to become Age UK); Andrea Gillies, author of Keeper, an account of caring for her mother in law who suffers from Alzheimer’s; Baroness Mary Warnock, noted philosopher and ethicist; and Professor Hugh Perry, a neuroscientist from the University of Southampton. The whole debate was provided with lively chairing by Fiona Fox, director of the Science Media Centre.

First up was Andrea Gillies. She made a strong case for spending the money on art and music therapy, a measure that she claimed would bring immediate but also long term benefits to elderly people with dementia. She highlighted the intriguing work of Art Without Boundaries in the States, and Singing for the Brain in the UK. Art Without Boundaries have posted videosonline which appear to demonstrate the successful application of art therapy in this way, stimulating even non-verbal patients into conversation along with the creation of quite beautiful artwork.

Second to speak was Andrew Harrop, who focused on the loneliness and isolation felt by many elderly people. Inspired by his recent experience of having a child, he proposed using the money to set up a new organisation called “Tea for three” which would pair new parents with single elderly people for visits. Though he found some fans in the audience, Mary Warnock, in her 80s herself, later said she wouldn’t actually be that pleased if someone came knocking on her door with baby in tow.  Andrew was the first to go, so perhaps many in the audience agreed with Mary, though Andrew did attract some positive comments when he wrote up his “Tea for Three” idea for a Guardian blog.

Hugh Perry was up next, proposing that his million be spent furthering the research done by his own team at Southampton on the links between infection and cognitive decline in dementia patients. He described this as an issue which has been ‘hidden in plain view’ – known anecdotally to carers and medical practitioners, but never properly studied and understood. Perry’s research over a six month period showed that patients who had suffered inflammatory disease below the neck had a significantly greater rate of cognitive decline than those who hadn’t. He had already begun to work on understanding the mechanism behind this effect, but called for more money to progress this work into something clinically useful.

Finally, Mary Warnock took to the podium having decided to split her potential pot of money into two halves. The first, she said, should be used to tackle the inexperience of many hospital nursing staff in dealing with patients that may come into hospital for something like a fall, but also suffer from symptoms of dementia. It seems that these patients are more likely to stay ill and in hospital for longer than patients without dementia, which may be down to the way they are treated (a subject which Andrea Gillies has been moved to write about herself). Mary suggested that setting up a distance learning scheme to educate nurses about dementia would be a good way to tackle this. The remaining half of the money she wanted to put towards scientific research into dementia, an area which she claimed was massively underfunded.

Mary was actually the second to go, so this good-natured but lively debate ended with the audience asking a wide range of questions to both Andrea and Hugh, the last two standing. Finally, though, a decision had to be made and a close vote won it for Andrea.

I interviewed each of the speakers on camera beforehand to hear more about their proposals and these videos are now up on our website for viewing. I also canvassed the views of the audience to find out how they might spend £1m to tackle the problems associated with ageing, and to find out what they thought of the debate. If you missed the chance to contribute to this film on the night, do let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

Martha Henson is a Multimedia Editor at the Wellcome Trust