How do you feel about ageing? I mean, to be getting old, a pensioner, a senior citizen?
Through interviews with about 50 people aged 50-90 (most, but not all, with women, including a few followers of Henpicked) we have a new and fresh view of ageing which is largely positive. In our book A New Age of Ageing, published by Policy Press, we explore the plus side of advancing years.
It seems that what people value about being older is the freedom from constraints; the opportunity to really be themselves and not to worry about what others think of them.
Not all of our interviewees are in the best of health, but they relish new learning opportunities and having time to have fun, exploring existing and new interests and spending more time with family and friends.
These older people are doing wonderful things – fostering youngsters, taking part in a triathlon and working hard to support their families and their communities through voluntary and political work. There is a zest for bringing about change for the better for society.
It’s time to challenge stereotypes
This view of ageing counteracts the ageist, beige stereotypes that are still prevalent when referring to older people.
My grandson, aged eight, who has two very active grandmothers (one, not me, regularly cycles 50 miles +) still mimes a bent old crone with a walking stick when he refers to grannies in general. It seems that older women mysteriously disappear from our TV screens, older men less so, and advertising aimed at the older market concentrates on stair-lifts and medical products, ignoring the fact that most luxury cars are bought by people over 50.
The subtitle of our book is How society needs to change. The stereotypical view of older people is patently out of date. As the average life expectancy has steadily gone up, people are staying healthy longer and, as a result, more active. The generation that grew up with the Beatles is less likely than previous older generations to retire gracefully into the background.
However there seems to be a lag in noticing these changes. Worse still, it often seems that a blame culture is emerging, pinning the housing shortage, problems with the NHS and other social ills on the so called baby boomers rather than on short-sighted government policy. This, along with the continued acceptance of old-fashioned stereotypes, leads to an attitude of ‘them and us’ and reinforces a resentful and negative attitude to older people.
How could society change?
Our ageing population is a success story. If we are lucky we will all become old. We have to face the fact that, thanks to medical and economic advances, older people are a growing section of society, not just in this country but throughout the world.
The ageing of the population is going to continue for the foreseeable future. Systems set in place now, that take the full implications of an ageing society into account, will benefit not only those who are older now but also younger people who will be old in the future.
Changes to society such as integrating health and social care, adopting more flexible working practices and ensuring that there are no older people living in poverty are ways of investing in the future for us all.
The views of our interviewees show just how outdated the stereotypes are that are often applied to older people. We challenge the mind-set of ‘them and us’ that side-lines older people, or regards them as a problem. We believe that a society that values older people will be a better society for us all and we hope that our book helps to open up new ways of looking at ageing today.