Change that leads to better lives

Getting The Man Down From The Moon - Challenging negative images of ageing

(Written in conjunction with Dorothy Runnicles)

The annual launch of the latest John Lewis Christmas advert generated a wave of conversations, as it does every year. If Twitter is something to gauge action by, the issue of social isolation for older people has become more topical. However, these conversations also made us stop and consider how older people are presented in society.

Whilst welcoming the short-term focus the John Lewis advert has placed on loneliness, the images it uses risk feeding into the longer term problem of society’s negative attitudes towards older people – attitudes which are a major causal factor behind social isolation. Where social action or fund-raising is the aim, there can be a tendency to present all older people as in need, or at risk.

In the final report of the Commission for the Voluntary sector on Ageing, “Decision Time” a challenge was set to the voluntary sector to combat ageism. As well as giving power and voice to the reciprocal and direct contributions older people make to the sector, the commission rightly stated:

“We must reject the insidious use of language and images that suggest all older people are vulnerable and needy. These stereotypes are off-putting to donors, workers and volunteers on whom we will increasingly rely (many of these are older people) and are also deeply damaging to our communities.”

There is an inherent contradiction in publicising the issue of older age and isolation or vulnerability. The images and words often used risk inadvertently creating exclusion and “otherness” instead of moving towards the social inclusion we are seeking to achieve. If older age is seen purely (and very inaccurately) as a time of need and isolation we risk increasing the fear and stigma of ageing.

Dorothy Runnicles is a long standing associate of NDTi, and at 90, continues to be an activist working towards realising the rights of older people and other excluded groups. Dorothy was invited to Glasgow to do a TED X talk about ageing, including how we can tackle ageism. She says:

“It’s clear from this and other similar advertising campaigns that the portrayal of older people in the media continues to be ageist as our cultural attitudes and norms have not moved on. All too often the voices of older people are not heard or asked for.

The difficulty lies in ageism as a cultural norm which we often don’t even recognise. It’s rife, and holds back the inclusion of older people and the benefits we gain from older people in our society. I myself had to learn to recognise that sexism and racism as a child have been part of our cultural norms, and consciously take action to change my own cultural beliefs.

Here in my retirement village I hear all too often the impact these prejudices have on my peers. Often there is a concern that their family no longer value them as they become older. Our regional collective of older people’s groups attempted to set a new agenda for action on tackling ageism. It has existed in our culture for too long.

Solidarity is about knowing an older person well. Prejudice reduces when you have a friend who is part of a group who you may otherwise consider as different. Get to know your favourite older person better. Find one if you don’t. Spend time with them.

We need to recognise and talk about the contributions older people make rather than talking about people as a burden. Older people are very big business - lots of money is made on us. But seeing people purely as profit-making risks commodifying rather than valuing people. We are part of the economic community. We are not one bunch of people either. Older people are diverse - all colours, shapes and sizes. We are guardians of our various spiritual heritages. We provide lots of grand-parenting and childcare for free. And we provide enormous amounts of help for each other - much support is peer and mutually based. Help us to keep our networks going. And keep your older person in the loop, dementia or no dementia. I learnt most of my wisdom from my mother in her last twenty years, ten of those with dementia and I still learnt from her.

Celebrate and boast about age as I do!”

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