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The DofE for grown ups

Rachel Carlyle / 04 June 2021

Finding a sense of purpose after retirement can be a struggle. Rachel Carlyle meets a man who's created an award scheme for the over-55s.

Dr Mike MacLean and his dog taking a walk through the woods || Photo credit: Alun Callender

When his friends began to retire, Richard Pertwee noticed how many struggled with life, hitting the golf course because they couldn’t think of anything else to do, but ultimately not finding fulfilment. It got him thinking: what if there were something like the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, but for older people rather than teenagers, something to challenge and inspire in the years around retirement?

After several years of thinking, planning and energetic networking, the retired corporate lawyer launched The Challenge Hub, and 2,100 over-55s have already signed up to start their ‘All in One’ award.

It’s so-called because participants have to gather points in three areas that scientists say are the keys to a healthier later life: learning a new skill or academic discipline, completing a physical challenge, and making a social contribution.

It’s very similar to the life Richard, 66, planned for himself when he retired at 50 from his high-pressure job in the City that ended up giving him two heart attacks.

‘I planned a structure so I would have time for myself at last, but also keep learning and pushing myself in different ways,’ he says.

He became a magistrate, then after realising how much crime was driven by drugs and alcohol, he became a volunteer at a needle exchange centre and ended up as chair of a national addiction agency. He bought a Canadian canoe and paddled the length of the Thames, Severn and Wye, and also found time to indulge his inner ‘frustrated historian’ by spending hours in the Bodleian Library in Oxford researching his favourite period, the Dark Ages.

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But when his contemporaries began retiring, he noticed that several had difficulties. ‘They suffered from a loss of structure – they had a void in their lives. Some struggled not earning, not because they needed the money, but because it was how they validated their lives. In a job you have a status, the structure of an office, motivation and a social group, but you lose all that overnight when you retire,’ he says.

‘The people who hit the golf course to get their handicap down were bored after a year. It just wasn’t enough, it didn’t hit the spot.’

Richard heard lots of retirement ‘war stories’ from his charity work, too: a brilliant scientist who couldn’t cope and retreated to his bedroom to do mathematical conundrums all day; stress between couples getting under each other’s feet, and people volunteering not because they felt genuine passion for a cause but because it was something to occupy the time.

This is backed up by UK research that shows at least 25% of retirees experience difficulties ‘resulting in adverse psychosocial outcomes’. One survey of 1,000 people showed that 20% of those who had retired in the previous five years admitted to finding it hard, and of those about to retire 44% weren’t looking forward to it.

These are the people Richard wants to attract to The Challenge Hub. ‘People sometimes say, why would I want to do this award? If I want to climb a mountain, I’ll climb a mountain – but the problem is, you don’t. It’s the people who say that who are the least likely to do it. Most people need drivers in their lives.’

The whole project has been knocked off course by Covid; it launched late last January, just before the virus hit, with high-profile backing from the chief executive of Public Health England, the NHS Confederation and the Open University, among others. But meetings with would-be sponsors had to be rescheduled when the first lockdown began. Despite this, Richard is pleased at the number who have registered so far, half of them women, at a time when completing the challenge has been mostly physically impossible.

As well as the All in One, The Challenge Hub is offering the Charities Challenge, a slightly easier option where you need fewer points and can concentrate on volunteering and skills rather than physical challenges if mobility or fitness is limited.

Retired GP Dr Mike MacLean, 72, is one of those signed up for the All in One and was planning his physical challenge – walking the 150-mile Pilgrims’ Way from Winchester to Canterbury – when the pandemic got in the way. ‘I reckon on 20 miles or so a day for seven days, and I’ve mapped it all out, even down to whether there are any stiles on the route that dogs can’t manage, because I’m taking my Labrador, Barney.’ Mike has been running a Covid vaccination clinic for most of 2021 but aims to get back to the challenge later this summer.

For the skills side of the award, he has been learning Hungarian via the Duolingo app on his phone during walks on the South Downs near his Hampshire home. The aim is to get proficient enough to be able to converse with his Hungarian daughter-in-law, but he says even after 337 days of learning he’s still a way off. ‘I am hopeless, though in my defence it is a really complicated language,’ he says. His eldest son Tom is also teaching him the guitar via Zoom, which he says has proved something of a challenge for both as he is tone-deaf. Volunteering wise, he signed up to the Good SAM app, which has put him in touch with older and clinically vulnerable people during the pandemic.

‘I think the All in One is a brilliant idea,’ says Mike.

‘I did find after retirement that I stopped being so active physically – I started to think, “Perhaps I’d better slow down a bit” and was horrified to get to 15 stone.’ He has lost four-and-a-half-stone in the past year, reversing his Type 2 diabetes. ‘It’s good to have an incentive not to let yourself decline. You can lose some of your edge when you retire, but now I’ve been challenged to wake up again.’

Richard Pertwee has big ambitions for the award, pointing out that 300,000 14-24-year-olds register each year for the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award – and the over-55s are an even bigger cohort.

‘Everyone has loved the idea, and many said they couldn’t believe it hadn’t been done before,’ he says. ‘I would like it to be as automatic to complete the All in One when you retire as it is for teenagers to do DofE when they reach a certain point in school. In my dream world, people in their sixties and seventies will ask each other: “Have you done your All in One yet?”’

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.