Mike Lake: Older people are an asset, not a liability

From a speech by the Director General of Help the Aged to a television conference, held at Bafta in London
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I grew up in St Ives, which is as delightful a place as it looks. But the primary school playground in St Ives nearly 50 years ago was just as much a theatre of cruelty as any school playground anywhere. Like every other six-year-old, I learned the little mantra to protect myself from the sheer, unmitigated nastiness that children inflict on each other: "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me."

When I was six I believed that. But the older I became the more I realised what a con that little mantra was. Names do hurt you. And the older you are, the worse it gets. Saying to sentient and vibrant people that they are the elderly, lumping them all together and dehumanising millions of older people, is hurtful.

One in five people in the UK is aged 55 or over; in 25 years not only will they will make up the majority of the adult population, but millions will be in their 70s, 80s and 90s. The present already is, and the future will increasingly be, one of maturity. But you would not know it from watching your TV screens. Research by the Independent Television Commission, in the autumn of 2000, revealed that older people are far less well represented than younger people on television – and where they are portrayed, it is mostly in soap operas and sitcoms.

Help the Aged is deeply concerned with how older people are portrayed. We worry that too often older people are talked and written about solely in negative terms – about the burdens of old age or the costs of care. Despite the fact that older people are a very diverse population, age is commonly used as a proxy, as if it were synonymous with poverty, illness, lack of capacity or other limiting factors

How older people are represented in the media matters, because the result of the current depiction is that just over half the population – 51 per cent – believe this country treats older people as if they are on the scrapheap. According to one of our polls, 44 per cent feel that older people are considered a burden on society Their impression is that in Britain older people are regarded as a waste of time. Impressions have a habit of becoming self-fulfilling facts, and they make it easier to disregard older people.

We need to act against the huge amount of discrimination against older people. For instance, despite the stories we sometimes see leading the news, two- and three-day waits in hospital A& E departments are fortunately rare. Far more insidious is the fact that if you are over 60, then routinely you have to wait, on average, nearly five hours for attention, compared with waits of less than three hours for those under 40.

Discrimination at the personal, institutional and governmental level is a fact of life for older people in this country. Voluntary codes are inadequate. Reform needs changes in the law and the establishment of a commission on age equality. But even more importantly, it needs a change in attitude. Instead of talking about the problems of older people we should talk about their needs. We need to think of the collective of our parents and grandparents as assets not liabilities. We need to turn from negative to positive in reporting our ageing society.

There is continuum of images that differentiates old age. We all age in our own ways and each of us has an ageing story to tell. How we age is determined by our own characters, our own circumstances and health, and our own histories. But also, it is determined by the construction that society places on old age. People, no matter what age they are, feel better about themselves when they believe that they – individually – are part of a society and not put to one side as the other, the elderly, the old.

The least we can do for older people is to show them the respect and dignity they undeniably deserve, to make them feel that they really are an integral part of our society.