In April of this year, Age UK London’s Age Allies project took part in “Age/ncy”, an intergenerational arts display organised by Flourishing Lives at Tate Modern. Of the course of the weekend, dozens of organisations from across London put on exhibitions, workshops, installations and performances that challenged stereotypical assumptions of older people. Our activity was under the heading “Continuum”. We designed and printed “game board” style maps of the Age/ncy space, encouraging people to explore and engage with the wide array of activities and complete their journey at the Age Allies instillation. Here we used a series of activities to promote a greater awareness of attitudes to ageing for participants. Our aim was to begin a process of self-questioning about attitudes to age.
We have now had time to reflect on the weekend as a whole and to assess all the information we received when running our workshops. Let’s take a look at some of the findings…
2,215 people attended across the three days and the Age Allies staff and volunteers undertook 358 workshop exercises. There were two main exercises, which were a catalyst for wider discussion. In the first, participants were asked to take a postcard with a photograph of one of four Age Allies and write on the back what they thought their age might be and what they did with their time. They would then have the opportunity to discuss their answers with the Age Ally they chose and to ask any questions they had about age and ageing. This was an opportunity to begin exploring their attitudes to age and ageing. In the second exercise, participants wrote down what they had hoped to do when they were younger, did now and hoped to do when they were older.
Participants would then fill in an evaluation form to see how their views had changed as a result of engaging with the Age Allies project. 228 evaluation cards were completed and participants represented a broad spread of ages. The youngest participant was 11 and the oldest 89, with an average age of 53. Attendants were predominantly from the UK and 25 London boroughs were represented. Meanwhile, five people declared themselves to be from the EU and one from the USA.
There are some interesting insights to be gleaned by looking into some of the evaluation responses as well as the information provided as part of the exercises. Firstly we were pleased to see that 93% of those surveyed were inspired by what they saw and a majority (63%) said their time at Age/ncy affected their assumptions about older people. It is possible that this second number is slightly lower due to the ages of those who took part – those who would already consider themselves to be an “older person” would perhaps be less likely to believe their assumptions of ageing could be changed as they already hold lived experience.
The majority of those who undertook the postcard exercise, guessing the age and occupation of the Age Ally whose card they had chosen, tended to assume that the Age Allies were engaged in traditional leisure activities usually associated with older age, rather than working. For our Age Ally Frances, this was 78% of the respondents, for Jackie and Vanda 80%. For Chris it was 69%, more people therefore assuming that Chris worked. The Allies wondered if this was something to do with him being male and perceptions of male/female retirement ages may have played a part. But he was also assumed to be younger than the others. More people assumed that he was under 60.
It was clear from the responses that it was generally assumed that anyone over the age of 60 was likely to be retired and pursuing leisure activities, commonly gardening, reading and spending time with friends, family and in particular grandchildren. Very few people who suggested the Allies might be working thought they were over 60. Of those who did refer to work, either current or past, the majority assumed that they were teachers. Excluding Chris who was thought to be a driver or a pub owner amongst other things, the tendency to refer to teaching was even more marked.
In another workshop exercise, the participants were asked what they themselves had hoped to be when they were younger, what they did now and what they hoped to do when they were older. Common hopes were to do particular work, voluntarily or otherwise, to travel, spend time with friends, family, help others and (unsurprisingly for an event at Tate Modern), pursue creative hobbies. It was encouraging to see that there was a positive feel to most of the answers. Only three wrote with a negative slant, although 26 referenced the hope to stay healthy and be active.
People’s hopes for their own future tended to incorporate more outgoing, active and engaged occupations associated with the wider community and the world beyond home, friends and family. This contrasted with their assumptions about the lives of the Age Allies, which – as mentioned – tended to focus upon more docile activities such as reading and spending time with their family. While many of the respondents thought of their future in an optimistic way, they provided a far less outgoing and diverse depiction of life for our Age Allies. This is most likely a result of the stereotypical portrayal of older people that we see within the media, which leads us to believe that old age is a miserable experience. Accordingly, a recent RSPH report found that 25% of 18-34 year olds believe it is “normal” for older people to be unhappy and depressed.
The Age Allies project has worked hard over its three-year duration to change this perception of ageing by holding talks and workshops within businesses and organisations across London. With project funding set to finish this September, we will be hosting a farewell event to celebrate the success of the project and to share the key learning points. For more information, please click here.