Don't be so negative about old age

From the Age Concern Week inaugural lecture, given at City University, London, by the professor of adult nursing research, Julienne Meyer

Share

Old age is socially constructed. In the 1960s you were considered "too old" to have a baby if you were aged over 30 years; now the cut-off point is generally seen as 40. Who knows? - in years to come, with advances in medical technology, and more liberal views, women and men may never be considered too old to have children.

Old age is socially constructed. In the 1960s you were considered "too old" to have a baby if you were aged over 30 years; now the cut-off point is generally seen as 40. Who knows? - in years to come, with advances in medical technology, and more liberal views, women and men may never be considered too old to have children.

Society used to consider retirement from paid employment as the entry into old age - the leaving-present of a clock signifying the passage of time. But today, with levels of unemployment and early retirement, plus the fact that people live longer and lead healthier lives, old age is being more broadly defined, and there is a consequent need to give greater consideration to quality-of-life issues.

Age Concern (a charity commonly associated with older people) recently put on a festival for the over-50s in Islington, north London, entitled "A Step in the Right Direction". Part of the focus for the festival was exclusion of people over 50 from the workplace, and employment opportunities.

This day of art, information and entertainment held something for everyone: grand tea dance, internet and computer training, wine-tasting workshop, genealogy lounge, line dancing, alternative therapies, pre-retirement workshop and information stalls including health, leisure, benefits, travel.

Of the 4,000 who attended, I wondered how many were in the younger age bracket (50-60). Contrary to expectation, 25 per cent of those attending were in the 50-60 age bracket. But society's negative views on ageing sometimes inhibit us from attending age-related events. Too often, negative stereotypes of ageing get in the way.

The media often glamorise the famous in later life and negatively stereotype those who are not. A recent Sunday magazine featured Joan Collins; the caption read: "Joan Collins, 67, is one of the world's most instantly recognised women. A successful author, actress, producer and entrepreneur, she has been married four times, has three children and a granddaughter."

First, the caption focuses on how age is measured and states Joan's chronological age as 67, but the picture of her youthful looks and the words that describe her as an "entrepreneur" are not what you would normally expect of a person of her chronological age. Another sense of her age is given by detailing her relations with her family and by giving a sense of her biography. The magazine feature thus challenges our social expectations. The picture and caption are designed to surprise.

Within the interview, associated with this caption, Joan is asked: "What is your attitude to age?" Her reply is revealing: "I have a theory, which is that you can't stop getting older, but you can stop getting old. Of course it takes work, but then, so does anything worth doing."

Within our society, getting old is not desirable, and we are encouraged to avoid it all cost. On television and in real life, we often hear older people referred to as "gerries", "wrinklies", "grannies", "blue-rinse set", "senile", "old bag", "old biddy", "old cow". In fact, anything "old" is derogatory.

Often, we are aware that such words are ageist, but we do not challenge ageism in the same way that we would racism or sexism. The negative images of older people are around us constantly.

There are two critical orienting events in the life course, namely birth and death - the events in between contribute to our sense of biography. Our biographies offer us a sense of individuality and identity.

It is sad to note that when someone dies, their newspaper obituary often reveals aspects of a person that were not known, even by those quite close to the individual. Encouraging people to talk about their biographies often helps them to feel valued as individuals. Within society, negative views toward ageing often prevent us from exploring older people's biographies.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Mid Weight

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To support their continued grow...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Data Specialist

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are the go-to company for ...

Recruitment Genius: Search Marketing Specialist - PPC / SEO

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join the UK's leadin...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This caravan dealership are currently recruiti...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Rafael Nadal is down and out, beaten by Dustin Brown at Wimbledon – but an era is not thereby ended  

Sad as it is, Rafael Nadal's decline does not mark the end of tennis's golden era

Tom Peck
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy