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When it comes to ageism, are we fighting a losing battle?

Many people see the ageing process as a constant losing battle, and make things hard for themselves by internalising society’s ingrained ageism.

Our Director of Evidence, Catherine Foot, writes that we need to do more to prepare for and re-evaluate the changes that happen as we age – rather than accepting them as the negative consequence of an ageing population.

One of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches is about ageing – the one that starts ‘All the world’s a stage’.

It sets out life in seven ages, and presents old age in utterly depressing terms as a 'second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything'.

The speech is delivered by Jacques, a young and unremittingly 'melancholy' cynic who sees only the worst in life, and the audience takes his words in that context. Immediately after he delivers this line, out walks Adam, a servant who is almost 80 years old but whose “age is as a lusty winter.

So, in a matter of moments, Shakespeare gives us two quite opposing views of ageing.

Most media outlets seem closer to melancholy Jacques than lusty Adam. The go-to angle on stories about longer lives and the ageing population focuses on the increasing numbers of people in their 80s and 90s who are frail or have a disability, topped by pictures of wrinkly hands.

The compliment ‘you don't look your age’ may seem kind, but imagine complementing someone who is gay by saying, ‘wow, you're looking really straight today, what's your secret?’
Changing the negative image of an ageing population

While the challenge of finding the funding that social care needs – both now and in the future – is a very real problem, for me this is an example of the overwhelmingly negative framing we still see when people talk and write about our ageing population.

Why do we tend to see debate about the impact of our ageing population – an extraordinary success story of public health, nutrition and medical science – framed not in terms of celebration and opportunity, but in terms of an impending fiscal apocalypse?

Part of the answer must be because we are ageist. Ageism is the last socially normal, socially acceptable form of prejudice. It’s been internalised, ingrained in us. It’s the last taboo.

Take how we talk about physical appearance. The compliment 'you don't look your age' may seem kind, but imagine complementing someone who is gay by saying, 'wow, you're looking really straight today, what's your secret?'

Winning the battle against internalised ageism

People tend to think of ageing in terms of loss: whether it’s of loved ones; physical and mental capability; or independence, identity and sense of purpose.

Ultimately, we can’t prevent these losses, but I believe our response to longer lives needs to do six things to manage them and prevent ‘internalised ageism’ from taking root:

  1. Challenge discrimination and stereotyping of older people. The #nomorewrinklyhands Twitter campaign by @saralivadeas is a great endeavour to challenge lazy stereotyping in the media.
  2. Eliminate unnecessary losses – like preventable diseases, poor quality housing, inadequate routes to employment – and not accept them as inevitable. Fundamentally, it’s about addressing health and socioeconomic inequalities.
  3. Build a society that accommodates those losses we can’t prevent. We need workplaces that are flexible to carers’ responsibilities and open to the benefits of older workers, accessible communities which support people with a disability, and a culture which values the provision of daily care for those who need it.
  4. Embrace the fact that old age brings gains as well as losses, such as time to take up new activities, learn new knowledge, or grow into new roles in families and communities.
  5. Equip people to better reflect on their lives as they age, recognising how many more decades they have the potential to live for and opening conversations about what they can do to have the money, health and social connections they need for the good later life they want.
  6. Recognise the social and economic value that older people bring to society – not lump them as a ‘dependent’ statistical mass – and empower and support people to enjoy the gains that later life can bring.

Shakespeare had it right when he showed that many of us think in terms of loss when we reach later life, but the reality of ageing doesn’t need to be that way.

Our ingrained ageism and ‘loss’ mentality is doing ourselves and our society a great disservice. We are collectively giving up on ourselves too early.

Catherine Foot
Director of Evidence (job share)