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

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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.

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