At the time of writing, the first few deaths from coronavirus in the UK have been reported. I’ve found it rather disconcerting that, as they have all (so far) been old and ill, it might be less of a general concern. Worse still was the report on the comments of Professor June Andrews, addressing the Scottish Parliament audit committee, that COVID-19 could assist hospitals with delayed discharges because people would be ‘taken out of the system,’ (The Independent, 8th March 2020). Surely both represent a reflection of entrenched views of older people and the prejudice of ageism?
It is my sense that ageism is everywhere. It is often insidious rather than explicit, part of the language used and thus shaping attitudes along with ways of thinking and behaving. Take birthday cards for example.
Every stereotype about the negative aspects of ageing can be found in birthday cards: physical appearance, forgetfulness or limits to mobility are used in patronising ways for the purpose of a joke. These attitudes then become normalised and routine amongst families, in workplaces and services – including those of care and health.
Writer, Ashton Applewhite (author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageing) notes mantras such as ‘70 is the new 50’ also reinforce the vitality of being younger. She argues that ageist views start with the language we use to emphasise vulnerability and dependence, rather than resilience and independence. According to Applewhite, there is a growing awareness of ageism but it isn’t being translated into policy. Many still see older people as a problem, less capable (and less worthy maybe), as a burden and a cost, rather than viewing added years as a bonus and an opportunity for individuals as well as society.
The fact that we are living longer is something to celebrate. On average, men and women are living some ten years longer than their parents and 20 years longer than their grandparents. This represents a dramatic shift in the demographic make-up of society and has wide-ranging implications. Advances in medicine, public health, standards of living, lifestyle and so on have contributed to longer lives but we are yet to properly put in place policies to ensure that the benefits of these extra years can be fully enjoyed.
There are now almost 12 million people aged over 65 in the UK, and 3.2 million are aged over 80 (see The State of Ageing in 2019: Adding Life to Our Years, a report from Centre for Ageing Better). However, men at 65 in the UK can expect to live about half of the remainder of their life without disability, i.e. ten of 19 years. For women, ten of 21 extra years, on average, of longer life will be free of disability or ill-health.
Furthermore, in less than 20 years, the number of people aged 65 and over will increase by more than 40% to the point that, by 2036, one in four of the population in the UK will be aged over 65. I wonder if we are really ready for the potential changes that this will bring.
‘Unlike other prejudices such as racism and sexism…ageism is unique in targeting our future selves,’ says Ashton Applewhite. To address this, I think we need to start with the young, and the younger the better. The award-winning Channel Four programme, filmed at The St Monica Trust, Old People’s Home for Four Year Olds set a wonderful template for this – there was no evidence of ageism on the part of the children featured.
By starting with education, we can put more emphasis on ageing throughout life, such that integration of the generations is simply natural and age diversity is something positive – each generation can learn from the other.
We need to rethink work, as an older workforce will undoubtedly be the workforce of the future. People will work longer than the current generation of retirees. This will require a different way of behaving around retirement and how it is described and portrayed, including greater flexibility, more part-time working, breaks and the like.
Relationships, of course, are the key to social connectedness and so much else – fulfilment, life satisfaction, self-esteem – the antidote to loneliness and isolation. Policies that tackle the causes of preventable ill-health and health inequalities, such as decent housing and public transport, are vital, as are leisure and ongoing learning and creative opportunities.
Clearly there’s a range of complex factors to consider. Nonetheless, casual ageism in popular culture and everyday life needs to be called out and challenged. I think those in social care are well placed to offer leadership in tackling ageism.
Des Kelly OBE is Chair of Centre for Policy on Ageing. Twitter: @DesKellyOBE