Professor Janet Askham: Researcher into ageing and health

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The Independent Online

Janet Askham's early focus as a sociologist was on family formation, intimate relationships, fertility and marriage; later, she was drawn to study how people adapt as they grow older or interact with health professionals. Her most perceptive work explored how family and the quality of friendship patterns help or constrain the way people handle the processes of becoming old or ill. Respect for the autonomy and dignity of the patient struck her as central to successful encounters with the vagaries of illness, ageing or healthcare, and were a constant theme in her research, teaching and advice.

In 1998, she was appointed Professor of Social Gerontology and director of the Age Concern Institute of Gerontology at King's College London, where she had worked since its inception in 1986, launching and managing the pioneering interdisciplinary master's course there. Then, in 2004, believing that she needed a new intellectual challenge, she transferred to be Research Director at the Picker Institute in Oxford and tilted once more towards research, shifting her gaze more onto patients and their interactions with professionals and institutions. She brought a lively stream of ideas and robust skills to her role, focusing on the perspectives, the needs and the interests of patients and healthcare-service users.

She also became a sought-after adviser, leading the external team on research on ageing and old age at the Department of Health, advising on the training and post-graduate education of doctors and acting as deputy chair to the Advisory Committee on Older and Disabled People at Ofcom. She was noted there for her incredible generous-heartedness.

Born in Godmanchester, Huntingdonshire, the daughter of the Rev Leonard Askham and his wife Hilda, Janet grew up mainly in her father's Cambridgeshire parishes of Harston and Barton. She was educated at the Perse School for Girls, before going to the LSE in 1960 to read sociology. After leaving in 1963, she worked for Mark Abrams, the doyen of British market and social survey research at Research Services Ltd.

Another long-term employer was the Medical Research Council in the guise of its Medical Sociology Research Unit, under the leadership of Raymond Illsey, at Aberdeen University. During her time there, her first two books, Identity and Stability in Marriage (1984), based on her Aberdeen University PhD thesis, and Fertility and Deprivation: a study of differential fertility among working-class families in Aberdeen (1975) were published. Both were ground-breaking at the time.

In 1980 she married the political commentator Byron Criddle; they had a daughter, Rosamond, and she was a much loved stepmother to Matthew. Her own uphill struggle to become pregnant had coincided with her studies at Aberdeen. I first met her when she was openly talking about her personal difficulties with miscarriages in conference workshops devoted to her research on women having babies and Karen Dunnell's national survey of family formation. She saw no real distinction, except for in the need to apply the rigour of quantitative analysis to anecdotes that reveal the nature of human experience, between people's personal and professional lives.

In retirement Mark Abrams had founded the Age Concern Research Unit and, when Askham first came to work with me there in 1983, it was not any expertise about ageing that won her the post. It was her prowess as a researcher in sensitive fields that made her so suitable, combined with the enthusiastic support of her two previous employers. She came to head an evaluation team in a project designed to test the viability of home care, in place of prevailing patterns of "treatment" in psycho-geriatric or institutional care, for people with advanced degrees of dementia. Askham considerably professionalised the work of the unit's team of researchers and in 1986, she and I subsumed the unit into the new Institute of Gerontology at King's.

Janet Askham's writings covered the life-course and included Caring: the importance of third-age carers (1992), Opinions on Pensions (1995), A Review of Professional Codes and Standards for Doctors in the UK, USA and Canada (2006), and a succinct 2004 chapter in Private Complaints and Public Health, written with me, reviewing the contribution of the welfare state doyen Richard Titmuss to the sociology of healthcare. This was to be my last collaboration with Janet; its highpoint, over a tightly scheduled lunch, was a feisty debate, full of lightness and laughter, about syntax, punctuation and the precise wording of a check-list for health professionals, exhorting them to explore and respect a patient's priorities and not to impair autonomy or dignity.

Janet Askham was a woman who brought insight, laughter and new perspectives to everything she turned her mind to. Her charm lulled policy-makers (and her bosses) into imagining that her ideas were theirs. She was always lively and genial, feeding others' egos but displaying none of her own, encouraging open-minded debate and exposing ideas to literary and historical, as well as anthropological, discipline. Her interests were wide-ranging because almost all human behaviour fascinated her.

If anyone could have shown us how to age well, Janet Askham would have been an inspiring example. She died suddenly of a cerebral haemorrhage and it is a terrible irony that this lively, principled and compassionate expert on ageing and health should have been deprived of her chance to experience life after work. She was going to find it all so fascinating. She would have entertained herself and those around her as she encountered – and talked and wrote about – the joys and travails of a later life that would have been littered with enriching examples of friendship and laughter, as her working life had been.

Jonathan Barker

Janet Mary Askham, medical sociologist: born Godmanchester, Huntingdonshire 28 October 1941; Senior Research Fellow, Age Concern Research Unit (later Age Concern Institute of Gerontology), King's College London 1983-90, Professor 1990-98, Professor of Social Gerontology 1998-2008, Director of the Institute of Gerontology 1998-2004; Research Director, Picker Institute 2004-08; married 1980 Byron Criddle (one daughter, one stepson); died London 7 July 2008.