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

Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML, CSS, SQL

£39000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML,...

Austen Lloyd: Commercial / Residential Property - Surrey

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: SURREY MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Programme - Online Location Services Business

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: What do you want to do with your career? Do yo...

Recruitment Genius: Senior QC Scientist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company is a leading expert in immunoassa...

Day In a Page

Read Next
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012  

I saw the immigration lies a mile off - and now nobody can deny it

Nigel Farage
The Uber app allows passengers to hail a taxi with a smartphone  

Who wouldn’t like a sharing economy? Well, me, for one

Mary Dejevsky
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game