For almost three years, our Age Allies programme has provided free age-awareness workshops to businesses and organisations across London. With funding for the project set to finish in September, Age Allies Programme Officer Richard Norman reflects on the campaign, including the lessons learned about society’s attitudes to age and ageing.
It has been an extremely interesting experience; designing and facilitating workshops for organisations across the capital over the past two years. Now the Age Allies Programme is nearing its end, I, and my small and dedicated band of committed, and highly creative volunteers are pulling together the learning from our intensive work.
We have met many amazing people along the way, who have not only been willing to look at their own attitudes and unconscious biases in relation to age and ageing, but also to take this new awareness into their work and their lives. Our network of Age Allies has grown steadily and conversations about the subject of attitudes to age are happening around water coolers all over London.
Our workshop method is simple; we work with participants’ own experiences. No power point, no handouts, and no certificate of “age friendliness” at the end. We use a series of exercises to enable participants to become aware of their own unconscious attitudes and relationship to age and ageing. We work through age categorisation, language, ambivalence (hostile vs benevolent ageism), positive/negative attitudes, and behaviour.
As one of my Age Allies volunteers says, “we just want to plant a seed”. My own preferred metaphor is creating a crack to let the light in. We start people on a journey of thought and discussion that leads to change. We are not the destination.
My overarching insight is the sheer scale of the impact of ageism. It underpins all of the difficulties faced by older people, from their invisibility in society to their own physical and mental health.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the birth of the term ‘Ageism’, but what does it mean to you? Does it suggest prejudice, discrimination and injustice or do you see it differently?
Intersectionality, (the combination and overlap of multiple forms of discrimination) is often brought into conversations about ageism, but ageism doesn’t stack up well against more widely accepted isms. It doesn’t have the emotive history of oppression, struggle, violence and suffering that other isms do. Drawing comparisons leads to ageism being seen as lesser than other group discriminations.
Ageism does however, have something that none of the others do – it affects virtually everyone (more than 90% will live past 65). With other isms it is highly unusual to eventually become that which you are discriminating against. In a very real sense we are discriminating against our own future selves, not just societally but also individually.
Children as young as six years old can show an awareness of ageist stereotypes; however, only in later life will the negative effects of self-stereotyping be realised. There is a growing body of research evidencing the real-life consequences that negative attitudes to ageing have on individual health outcomes.
Those with a negative attitude towards ageing tend to have worse health outcomes and live a shocking seven and a half years fewer on average, even after taking into account other health factors. Even for individuals who carry high-risk genetic factors for dementia, those with positive age beliefs are around half as likely to develop dementia as those with negative age beliefs.
Traditionally, the UK Age Sector engages in two main strands of activity: Campaigning on issues that affect older people and delivering services to mitigate the effects of those issues.
Ageism is not just another issue – it is the basis of all the issues. Consequently, tackling ageism requires a more flexible and agile approach, one that is creative and innovative i.e. trying new ways of working, testing and learning what is effective and what is counterproductive. We need to embed awareness of the influence and affect of attitudes to age in all the work we do.
This is a big ask. It requires leaders to really see the elephant in the room and have the courage to accept, and commit to the fundamental changes that need to be made.
What is it that prevents us from grasping the nettle? Is the elephant in the room really too big to be seen as a whole, or is it our adherence to traditional methods of working? Do we lack the necessary vision or are we intimidated by the size of the beast? Are we actually hobbled by our own institutional stereotypes?
The attitudes we hold to age and ageing are creating the world in which our future selves will live. We have the potential to make enormous positive changes for the benefit of everyone. As our population ages the consequences of inaction will have a profoundly negative effect on the health and social care system, our relationships, neighbourhoods and our economy. The inverse is also true. Being pro-active now will see a future that benefits all of us as we age.
I think that is something worth working for.
This is a shortened version of an article which originally appeared on LinkedIn. You can read the full article here.