Following on from our recent “Evolution of Ageism” conference as part of our Age Allies Project, Richard Norman muses on a world without ageism – what it would look like and how to get there.
The attitudes we hold about age and ageing define the quality of life our future selves will experience and the neighbourhoods in which we will live.
We are living active lives for longer, yet our attitudes and language often fail to recognise this fact. Older people are usually referred to as if they were a homogenous group and are often identified by a broad stereotype. Terms such as senior citizen or elderly can be applied to people in their sixties, yet they often conjure an inappropriate image of frailty, dependence and cognitive decline.
In reality older people are at least as diverse as everyone else. We become more individual as we age, not less so. They hold a vast array of untapped interests, skills and experience.
Ageism is subtle and implicit, hiding in plain sight, quietly influencing our interactions, behaviour and decisions. Sugar coating ageism makes it no more palatable and benevolent intent offers no immunity.
Recognition of its ubiquitous presence is slowly gaining traction in some quarters; however, free programmes designed to raise awareness of unconscious bias in relation to age, have proved a hard sell, particularly to business. They are yet to see the value of the opportunity such awareness represents.
A concerted information campaign and representation to policy makers will raise the profile of this issue, and nudge businesses and organisations into action. This includes the age sector that campaigns and provides services to mitigate the effects of some of the harsh challenges ageing can present.
When we are exposed to only negative images and stories about older age, it reinforces negative stereotypes that are then applied to all. There is an urgent need for counter balance with the many positive stories that can be told. We must avoid presenting old as sad.
Recent research has shown that 40% of people aged between 18 and 34 believe that dementia is an unavoidable consequence of ageing. A quarter that loneliness and depression is inevitable. These wholly inaccurate beliefs are not only shocking but also troubling for many reasons.
Studies have shown that holding a positive view of ageing results in an average lifespan increase of 7.5 years with improved health, mobility and wellbeing. A negative attitude removes those 7.5 years, shows an increase in life limiting health conditions and a higher risk of developing dementia.
There is now more than enough significant evidence to indicate that tackling ageism is a public health imperative. The consequences of inaction will have a profound effect on the health and social care system, and our economy, as the population ages.
On a grassroots level we as individuals all have a stake in this. Our unconscious attitude to age will affect how we experience our own ageing.
Facilitating workshops for people from organisations across London has shown me that many people are willing, and able, to explore their own relationship to age and ageing. In a society where ageism is normalised it is no small thing to acknowledge and address ones unconscious biases and attitudes; however, those who begin the journey do so with enthusiasm and hope for the future.
As individuals we can all make a difference. We can actively seek to raise awareness in ourselves and in others, challenging our assumptions and our passive acceptance of ageist attitudes. We can then take this awareness into our workplaces, designing innovative systems and practices that are of value to us all throughout the life course.
Equitable contact between people of different ages increases understanding. Merely having a friend who has an older friend, improves our attitude to ageing and older people. Segregation on the basis of arbitrary age distinction only goes to reinforce and perpetuate negative stereotypes and the “us v them” paradigm. This is true for services, products and environments.
We are all ageing; it is a natural consequence of time. To be anti-ageing is to be anti-living. Reframing ageing and designing for all of us as we age, will provide us with neighbourhoods that are open, accepting and accessible to all, wherever we are on our life path.