Challenging the Ageist Stereotype

By Mike Norton, Finance and Business Support Manager

Advances in medical sciences and healthcare have resulted in people living much longer. People are now staying healthy, energetic and living into their 80s, 90s and beyond. While these advances have been significant, society hasn’t quite caught up and some attitudes towards older people are still surrounded by negativity and stereotyping.

The Sex Discrimination Act 1975, Race Relations Act 1976, and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 have underpinned significant progress being made in society’s attitudes towards reducing discrimination against many sections of society. The Equality Act 2010 consolidated the earlier laws and brought in new provisions, including a ban on age discrimination in the provision of services and public functions. So whilst the legislation is in place, there is still much to do to change society’s perceptions and attitude to ageing and older people.

So many popular television programmes have been, and still are, populated by ageist stereotypes. For example, look at the lead character in One Foot in the Grave –Mr Victor Meldrew played by Richard Wilson. The characterisation typifies the grumpy old man who doesn’t like the change taking place in the world around him.

Scriptwriters conveniently overlook the fact that computer based technology has been around for many years, and people who are ageing today are likely to have experienced technology in the workplace. In 2015, it was estimated that of retirees; 36% regularly used YouTube, 24% used Skype, 54% were on Facebook, 15% used iTunes for their music and 10% used WhatsApp as their messaging service of choice. Those percentages will be increasing year on year and clearly challenge the stereotype of the older person being out of touch with technology. In the popular sitcom Only Fools and Horses, the older support character of Grandad/Uncle Albert was depicted as hesitant, vague, and forgetful old men. Whilst they were played for laughs, perhaps more thought should have been given to why those traits like memory loss were present-possibly signifying an underlying condition like Alzheimer’s, Dementia, or trauma?

Next week, from 21-27 May, is Dementia Action Week organised by the Alzheimer’s Society. There are encouraging signs that some parts of the media are now changing. Earlier this month, BBC Radio Devon gained an award at the Plymouth International Dementia conference for their efforts in making a dementia friendly radio station.

It is difficult to recall many positive depictions of older people in popular media/culture. Primetime television programmes always seem to favour younger “telegenic” people (having an appearance or manner that is appealing on television). In other countries, older people are respected and valued for their wealth of knowledge and experience. Older people have the skills and time to make a significant contribution to their communities, perhaps by volunteering for charities, mentoring, running clubs and societies. Big businesses are also realising the power of the “grey pound”, let’s hope their targeted marketing respects the older person and does not go down the ageist stereotypes that should by consigned to the archives.

Instead of inaccurate stereotypes, perhaps the media, and society in general, should put more energy into celebrating their worth. It would be good to see more positive roles for older people in the media.

At Torbay Community Development Trust, through the Ageing Well programme, we know that older citizens have so much to offer. There is growing support across Torbay for an Older Persons’ Assembly and we have now recruited a working party of 12 older residents with relevant skills, knowledge and experience who are committed to creating a lasting legacy for Torbay. They will now start the journey of co-producing the assembly which will act as a platform for people in later life to be part of the solution.