Open Eye: Challenging ageism: Preparing for the ton-up gang

While most of the world appears obsessed with youth, Yvonne Cook looks at new ways of thinking about the implications for individuals and society of an ageing population
Over the hill... one foot in the grave... past it... it's hard to find a positive way to describe getting old. Ageism and fear of ageing are rampant in modern western society - from discrimination against older workers in the job market to those ubiquitous 'humorous' birthday cards implying anyone over a certain age is a shapeless, toothless, wreck.

But most of us (unless we're unlucky) are going to experience old age, and probably for longer than our parents did.

Some scientists have even predicted that average life expectancy could be over 100 by the end of the next century. In an ageing society, to see age as, at best, a bad joke, seems a bit short-sighted. But there are signs things are changing.

As a University with an older than average student population, it's not surprising that the OU has been a pioneer in the study of issues surrounding ageing.

In the late 1970s it ran the highly influential course, An Ageing Population, widely recognised as Britain's first substantial course on the subject. Gerontology, the study of age, embraces a broad range of disciplines from medical to social science.

Gerontologist Dr Bill Bytheway is one of those concerned about negative age stereotyping and how it can be challenged. Based in the OU's School of Health and Social Welfare, he's a contributor to the current OU gerontology course, An Ageing Society, and the author of a book, Ageism, which is published by the OU Press.

"If, faced every day with negative images of later life, we constantly live in fear of age and ageing, it is hardly surprising if we become ill, isolated and depressed. And if those of us who work in the health and social services - and in educational establishments such as the OU - similarly value youth and not age, then again we should not be surprised if we end up unwittingly neglecting our older patients, clients and students."

A study published by Age Concern in April found that one in 20 people over 65 believed they had been refused treatment by the NHS because of their age.

Can anything be done to give ageing a more positive image? Should we even try, given that getting old is a biological reality with certain inescapable side effects?

Bill believes we can and we should, and that the OU has a part to play through education. An Ageing Society raises awareness of the issues. The course is not only concerned with the way students think about older people in society, but also with how they anticipate and plan for their own old age.

"For most of the 500 or so people who do the course annually, spending a year thinking about age will be an eye-opening, revolutionary experience," Bill says.

The OU's School of Health and Social Welfare has also recently established the Centre for Ageing and Biographical Studies with the aim of focusing attention upon the whole lives of older people, not just their current circumstances.

Another, more challenging, way to change the popular image of age is to create what Bill calls 'new mass images'. Bombarded by the media with images of youth to sell everything from cosmetics to cars, the reality of ageing is invisible, or presented only in a stereotypical fashion.

A controversial attempt to create a new image was made recently by Age Concern, with a parody of a popular advertisement for a bra, using a 56- year-old model instead of the conventional 20-something.

The slogan says that the only thing that some people would notice would be her age.

"What Age Concern is pointing to here, is the way that we are obsessed by age," says Bill. But although he applauds the attempt, he has reservations. "The ad is conveying an image of youthful vitality in an older woman, whose age is not given. In a sense, it is a denial of age."

But it's a start. And Bill sees hopeful signs that advertisers are waking up to the spending power of the older generation.

"In the '60s there was this rather crass belief in the youth market. But they have now woken up to the fact that they have neglected older people. Saga Holidays, for example, has been a tremendous success - although its advertising is a glamorised Hollywood version of age.

"The challenge now is to create images that are both honest, and effective. Some advertisers are trying and they are to be applauded."

One widely-used strategy to challenge ageism is to feature the exceptions: the marathon runners and artists still enjoying success in their eighties.

Yet the focus is first and foremost on the age, not on the achievement. "Aren't they wonderful for their age?" is what we are being invited to say.

But it is possible to find positive images which neither deny age, nor overemphasise it. Many of our heroes do not attempt to conceal their age, Bill points out.

"Look at the Queen Mother, Nelson Mandela, Barbara Castle. They each convey an image of dignity, fulfilment and wisdom.

"We don't think 'Oh dear, what a shame... the Queen Mother's left it too late to turn back the clock... she'll never recapture her youth now'. Nor, 'Why didn't Nelson do something about that damage to his face... he had all that time in prison'."

Photographers and portrait painters have long appreciated the power of the image of age. We may stand back and admire the beauty of youth, but it is the older person who raises questions about human life and what it is we value.

By being obliged to look the older person in the eye, perhaps we will face up to our own ageing and realise that it need not be quite as bleak an experience as we may have been led to believe.

This article includes some material which was first presented by Dr Bytheway at the Open University Open Day.