Newspaper Christmas Appeals: The elephants and the elderly

When our Christmas charity campaign for Help the Aged fell short of expectations, I searched for reasons

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At Christmas, each national newspaper runs its own charity appeal for a cause that is deemed particularly resonant for that paper's readership. This year, for instance, Independent readers - a globally aware and environmentally conscious constituency - are being asked to back a laudable campaign to save the endangered African elephant.

In my years as editor of The Independent, we supported at this time a number of charities aimed at relieving suffering around the world, or, indeed, protecting wildlife, or combating the effects of environmental degradation. We found that each cause struck a chord with our readers, who would contribute in an extremely generous manner (the average donation per reader was higher than that of any other title).

One year, however, we changed the nature of the appeal, making it more domestically focused, and less, if you like, glamorous. Help the Aged was our charity of choice. And what happened? We raised nothing like the same sums we had done in previous years when we supported initiatives working in less developed parts of the world. For readers of The Independent, it seemed, charity did not begin at home.

This was almost a decade ago, and in the ensuing period, we have become much more sensitised to the cares, concerns and issues of the elderly. We're all getting older, and living longer, but, importantly, there has been a shift in the wider perception of our senior citizens. Here's one superficial but significant example. Television dramatists just can't seem to get enough of old people. The second series of “Last Tango in Halifax”, a beautifully written and acted piece of work about the love affair of a couple way past pensionable age, has just ended, and its central idea was that romantic heroes don't have to be young and good-looking.

Another Christmas blockbuster - Downton Abbey - concluded with a scene of Mr Carson and Mrs Hughes, the two senior figures of the downstairs staff, walking off, hand in hand, into the sea. We were left to ponder whether an unlikely love could flourish for this couple in their sunset years. “We're getting on, Mr Carson,” said Mrs Hughes. “We can afford to live a little.” And thus the latest series of Britain's most popular drama ended, leaving viewers with a powerful idea, and one that felt much more contemporary than its early 20th Century setting.

Of course, there is a huge leap from this fictionalised portrayal of elderly love to tackling the real-life issues of loneliness and poverty that affect old people throughout the country. But it can only help that some of the taboos about the lives and loves of the old at heart are being broken down, and, even in a small way, the tyranny of the young is being resisted. When our Christmas charity campaign for Help the Aged fell short of expectations, I searched for reasons. The trouble, one of my colleagues said at the time, is that old people “just aren't sexy”. He meant that we don't feel a vital connection with their everyday problems. I'd like to think things have changed. Give generously to save the elephants in Africa, but don't forget the old and needy at home.

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