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Age and Ageing

“I’ve changed my attitudes about what it means to age. Sometimes people decide

it’s their lot in life to be old, but people like Grandma bring colour and excellence to their lives.

That’s what I’ve tried to do too. I’m looking forward to the next stage.”

Cloris Leachman


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I was born in ’85 to two 39 year olds. At the time, this number had little relevance, and why would it? After all, my mother and father were competent carers. If anything, the number in years in which they had lived on this planet at the time only served to benefit me. Being thirty-nine meant that they were old enough to have had the experience that teaches responsible and prepared parenting.

As I grew older, I began to be aware of perceptions to suggest that ‘older’ equalled ‘incapable’. In the playgrounds, children would mock me for having a mother ten to twenty years older than theirs and I was made to feel that this was wrong somewhat. Were I the person I am today, I would have provided ample evidence in the form of colourful pie charts and graphs to disprove their theory, but as a child, the desire to belong trumps all logic and peer opinion holds weight. I would like to say that these opinions stayed within the confines of the playground, but obviously, they had learnt this behaviour somewhere and as I grew older still, media and gossiping of the people around me further suggested that this was not the case.

On 15th July 2009, the Telegraph published the story of Maria del Carmen Bousada de lara, a Spanish woman who had lied about her age so that she could receive in vitro fertilisation treatment. Within a year of giving birth to twins, Christian and Pau, Maria was diagnosed with cancer and died at 69 years old, leaving behind her two-and-a-half year olds.

According to the same article at the time, Josephine Quintavalle, Head of the Comment on Reproductive Ethics (CORE) campaign group commented: “The poor children have been created and treated like objects. I’m sorry but she’s been totally selfish. Why would a woman want to become a mother at an age when she knows her children are much more likely to be orphaned when they’re young? Women are not meant to have babies when they’re in their sixties.” Public opinion, experienced by myself in the form of murmurs in the office echoed Quintavalle’s statement, agreeing that this woman had been ‘wrong’ to have children ‘at her age’, even going so far as to suggest that cancer had ‘shown her’, as some sort of tragic boo-yah. I am reluctant to admit this, but contemplating this public reaction, my thoughts turned to Jade Goody, made recently famous for dying young of cervical cancer and leaving two children in her wake. In death she became a martyr. That said, whilst I don’t agree with the insincere tactics Maria used in order to have her children and that a 60-something should not be indulging in the stressors of bringing up two toddlers, I am certain neither she nor Goody gave birth thinking that they would shortly die of cancer. In fact, Maria publicly stated in life that her maternal background suggested that she would have a long life but it was not the cancer nor the lying to have in vitro that Quintavalle and the public were angry about. They were angry that a woman would have young children in their sixties…

Ageism or age discrimination refers to a person or groups of people being “treated less favourably because of his or her age where it cannot be objectively justified” and is normally based on stereotyping built up from a “set of beliefs, attitudes, norms and values”. In terms of old age, this means assuming an individual’s age precludes their ability to do something or by treating an individual unfairly because of their age.

Ageism, as a form of discrimination, is the “less intense but more pervasive” of the lot at 29% – as found in surveys carried out by Age Concern. In general, age discrimination does not result in the hate crimes that we see in society as result of intolerance of other groups of people, e.g. against different races or people of different colours/ ethnicities. Instead it comes in the form of subconscious stereotyping such as the idea that an older person is warm, but incompetent/ unintelligent, that they are unaware of what they are saying or it presents itself in the form of baby talk, all of which may not mean harm but is experienced by the ‘victim’ as patronising or unfair.

When I was born, 39 was considered pretty old to have children. In fact, I was due to be born after my mother turned 40 but she refused to have a child that old and had me induced, ergo, my mother’s and my birthday are on two consecutive days in a month. In the case of Maria, ageism presented itself in the form of the debate it caused; as if having children at 60 was morally wrong. Indeed, such practices have been outlawed in the past as they were deemed so. For instance, in 1990s France, postmenopausal birth was prohibited by the Health Minister who said it was “immoral as well as dangerous to the health of mother and child”. Whilst it is certainly unusual at this time for women older than fifty to have children, I can see this becoming the norm. Age expectancies continuously expand as health advancements occur, so the assumption that people of old age – and for the sake of argument I am going to classify 65 and over as ‘old’ – would naturally suffer ill health and die shortly thereafter is becoming less and less the case. Whilst there might be a grain of truth in this, it’s not as cut and dry as Age turning up at your 65th birthday with a wrapped present of broken hips, senile dementia, cancer, strokes-a-g-go-go and shortly, death.

People are healthier and living longer than ever before. Unfortunately for Maria, she won the ‘cancer lottery’ and in turn justified people’s arguments. According to Cancer Research UK, 10.9 million people on average are diagnosed with cancer every year in every age range, meaning she is one of 0.16% of the world population. Talk about being unlucky… Had she lived to a ripe old age like many other older mothers, she could have been the one to turn around and say ‘BOO-YAH!’

Ageism is also prominent in media. It is said that journalists often use stereotypes, or rather what they THINK they know about certain groups of people, to save time when producing articles and shows. You also see stereotypes in television programmes. My own personal favourite are the characters, ‘Mom’ and ‘Doctor Farnsworth’ in Futurama. Mom – who owns MomCorp – has a corporate image of being a warm, old loving, ‘biddy’, whilst Doctor Farnsworth is the cantankerous old man who walks around in his pajamas, is forgetful and often falls asleep. I like how the creators of Futurama use Mom’s character particularly to play around with the idea of perceptions of old people. Everyone thinks old people are moral and friendly; even the characters within the Futurama world, who are regularly surprised with how ruthless and downright mean Mom turns out to be.

The highest prevalence of ageism, however, is found in the workplace. In February 2009, Dispatches (Channel 4) aired a documentary-style programme called “Too old to work”. In one section of the programme, we are introduced to three individuals who, despite being over fifty, describe themselves as “better workers now than they ever were in their twenties” but expressed difficulty finding work. Interviewed for roles, interviewers suggested they weren’t suited to the role because they would be “bored in [the] role”, that other candidates met their client’s criteria of being “energetic”, “enthusiastic” and “dynamic” and that that there were “cultural differences”.

Of course as external viewers we don’t know the context of their interviews. Perhaps the candidates weren’t coming across as enthusiastic or dynamic, perhaps their cultural backgrounds such as prior employment were too different from the environment they were interviewing at – e.g., differences between going from construction to office environments, or perhaps HR are just terribly shoddy at verbalising rejection. However, considering the terms mentioned above are all ones associated with being younger and considering that ageism is such a high form of discrimination in the UK, even to the point where people don’t realise that they’re doing it, that the three individuals felt discriminated against is hardly surprising.

I’ve been personally – unintentionally – prejudicial towards old people as recently as the last month, in fact, whilst working on researching for this article. I was in Sainsbury’s buying a new plant and joined the first queue I could. My server was an old man who looked over retirement age who was very slow, assisted sporadically by a younger colleague on a till close by. My initial thought was that he’s slow because he’s old. Upon realising this, I made a conscious effort to try to think why he might have been slow, concluding he was perhaps a new employee. The issue I have with ageism is that, barring illness, everyone gets older – often referred to as processional justice – so whilst it might be easy – as I have no doubt, proved – to pre-judge a person, I cannot understand why anyone would actively discriminate against older people. I can almost understand why someone might discriminate against a gay or disabled person, though I do not condone it in any way, on the basis of fear or misunderstanding of the unknown.

Ageing however, is universal. To be fearful of such a thing would be like being fearful of the inevitable, surely?

So why is ageism so prevalent, particularly in the West? There are a number of reasons. To some extent, people don’t understand and are thus fearful of age, resenting any reminder that they, too, will get older and potentially decline. In essence, ageing is simply the body’s inability to replicate new cells, so existing cells are seen to age. It’s a very normal part of human development, but humans are so afraid of the side effects of ageing, being wrinkled skin and ultimately, death, that they try to reverse it with lotions, potions and pills.

But, more importantly, the reason people are so prejudiced towards older people in society is because we learn via models. My mum once told me a story that perfectly illustrates this. One day, a father was seen stretching a rope by his young child. The child asked “what are you doing, daddy?” The father said, “my father is old and of no use to me now, so I am preparing a noose to get rid of him”. One day, the father comes across his own child doing the same and asks him why. The child replies, “I am preparing a rope for when YOU’RE old”. Western societies are built up on nuclear families consisting of mother, father and children. Older people exist in separate entity, usually sent to older peoples homes. In pockets of developed countries, for instance the Mediterranean and Asia, and developing countries, grandparents play an important role, either by sharing wealth of experience, support or certain expertise that is unavailable to younger generations. There is an important morale of people looking after their older generations and not just having them cooped up in a home, not encouraged to be physically or mentally active. In short, the way we treat people rubs off on younger generations. If they are taught to respect and revere older people, giving them what they need, they do so.

Ultimately, the effects of ageism are significant blows to self esteem. If older people are made to feel as if they are burdensome or useless, they begin to see themselves that way, in a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Had I expressed my distaste to that older man in Sainsbury’s for being slow, this would have only served to make him unhappier, cause him to feel self conscious and perform worse than if he were to be given positive reinforcement of how well he was progressing. The same is true for all humans.

So, what can be done to address ageism in society? In the UK, lots of work is being done by the Government to address this. The UK Age Discrimination Act came into place in October 2006, and whilst this is harder to enforce in private sectors, they are slowly following suit. Studies into psychological and sociological development also tell us more about decline. The Seattle Longitudinal Study led by Dr K. Warner Schaie and Dr Sherry L. Willis, for instance, looks particularly at cognitive ageing. Participants from ages 22 to 101 are studied intermittently every seven years. Findings from the study suggest that intellectual decline can be reversed. Interventions performed on participants seen to decline in a cognitive manner showed decline “a function of disuse and is therefore reversible”, that “two thirds of the experimental participants showed significant improvement, and about 40% of those who had declined significantly over 14 years were returned to their pre-decline level.” Furthermore, looking into decline, they found that it could not be demonstrated significantly in the average subject prior to being 60 years old “but that decline could be found for all abilities by age 74”. In other words, whilst it may be an inevitability for humans to decline within the latter years of their life to some degree, decline doesn’t necessarily equate to senile dementia. It could just be some forgetfulness or slightly reduced ability compared to previous. Additionally, the studies suggest that much of the time, intellectual decline is reversible or symptomatic of a deep rooted, predetermined illness.

For many, getting older can feel as if their bodies and their minds have betrayed them, as if being old is happening to them rather than a natural part of growing up. My mother often reminisces about being young and playing football whereas in real time, her body condition is of one that wouldn’t support such an active lifestyle. She sometimes refers to her body as ‘letting her down’; that whilst she feels she is as young as she ever was, her body doesn’t cooperate. Whilst this can be a frustrating aspect of growing older, getting to hear her stories brings me so much joy that I hope will be present for my own children in the future. I hope that knowing what I know about the complexity of ageing and how sensitive a matter it is, that I can be sensitive towards those who are older and to teach younger generations the important part that older people play in society.

If you want to know more and get involved in work being done for older people, go to the following links. And if none of the above inspires you, at least be comfortable in the knowledge that if you do become senile, “you won’t know it”.

http://www.helptheaged.org.uk/en-gb

http://www.ageconcern.org.uk/

http://www.independentage.org.uk/

“I’ve changed my attitudes about what it means to age. Sometimes people decide it’s their lot in life to be old, but people like Grandma bring colour and excellence to their lives. That’s what I’ve tried to do too. I’m looking forward to the next stage.” – Cloris Leachman

I was born in ’85 to two 39 year olds. At the time, this number had little relevance, and why would it? After all, my mother and father were competent carers. If anything, the number in years in which they had lived on this planet at the time only served to benefit me. Being thirty-nine meant that they were old enough to have had the experience that teaches responsible and prepared parenting.

As I grew older, I began to be aware of perceptions to suggest that ‘older’ equalled ‘incapable’. In the playgrounds, children would mock me for having a mother ten to twenty years older than theirs and I was made to feel that this was wrong somewhat. Were I the person I am today, I would have provided ample evidence in the form of colourful pie charts and graphs to disprove their theory, but as a child, the desire to belong trumps all logic and peer opinion holds weight. I would like to say that these opinions stayed within the confines of the playground, but obviously, they had learnt this behaviour somewhere and as I grew older still, media and gossiping of the people around me further suggested that this was not the case.

On 15th July 2009, the Telegraph published the story of Maria del Carmen Bousada de lara, a Spanish woman who had lied about her age so that she could receive in vitro fertilisation treatment. Within a year of giving birth to twins, Christian and Pau, Maria was diagnosed with cancer and died at 69 years old, leaving behind her two-and-a-half year olds.

According to the same article at the time, Josephine Quintavalle, Head of the Comment on Reproductive Ethics (CORE) campaign group commented: “The poor children have been created and treated like objects. I’m sorry but she’s been totally selfish. Why would a woman want to become a mother at an age when she knows her children are much more likely to be orphaned when they’re young? Women are not meant to have babies when they’re in their sixties.” Public opinion, experienced by myself in the form of murmurs in the office echoed Quintavalle’s statement, agreeing that this woman had been ‘wrong’ to have children ‘at her age’, even going so far as to suggest that cancer had ‘shown her’, as some sort of tragic boo-yah. I am reluctant to admit this, but contemplating this public reaction, my thoughts turned to Jade Goody, made recently famous for dying young of cervical cancer and leaving two children in her wake. In death she became a martyr. That said, whilst I don’t agree with the insincere tactics Maria used in order to have her children and that a 60-something should not be indulging in the stressors of bringing up two toddlers, I am certain neither she nor Goody gave birth thinking that they would shortly die of cancer. In fact, Maria publicly stated in life that her maternal background suggested that she would have a long life but it was not the cancer nor the lying to have in vitro that Quintavalle and the public were angry about. They were angry that a woman would have young children in their sixties…

Ageism or age discrimination refers to a person or groups of people being “treated less favourably because of his or her age where it cannot be objectively justified” and is normally based on stereotyping built up from a “set of beliefs, attitudes, norms and values”. In terms of old age, this means assuming an individual’s age precludes their ability to do something or by treating an individual unfairly because of their age.

Ageism, as a form of discrimination, is the “less intense but more pervasive” of the lot at 29% – as found in surveys carried out by Age Concern. In general, age discrimination does not result in the hate crimes that we see in society as result of intolerance of other groups of people, e.g. against different races or people of different colours/ ethnicities. Instead it comes in the form of subconscious stereotyping such as the idea that an older person is warm, but incompetent/ unintelligent, that they are unaware of what they are saying or it presents itself in the form of baby talk, all of which may not mean harm but is experienced by the ‘victim’ as patronising or unfair.

When I was born, 39 was considered pretty old to have children. In fact, I was due to be born after my mother turned 40 but she refused to have a child that old and had me induced, ergo, my mother’s and my birthday are on two consecutive days in a month. In the case of Maria, ageism presented itself in the form of the debate it caused; as if having children at 60 was morally wrong. Indeed, such practices have been outlawed in the past as they were deemed so. For instance, in 1990s France, postmenopausal birth was prohibited by the Health Minister who said it was “immoral as well as dangerous to the health of mother and child”. Whilst it is certainly unusual at this time for women older than fifty to have children, I can see this becoming the norm. Age expectancies continuously expand as health advancements occur, so the assumption that people of old age – and for the sake of argument I am going to classify 65 and over as ‘old’ – would naturally suffer ill health and die shortly thereafter is becoming less and less the case. Whilst there might be a grain of truth in this, it’s not as cut and dry as Age turning up at your 65th birthday with a wrapped present of broken hips, senile dementia, cancer, strokes-a-g-go-go and shortly, death.

People are healthier and living longer than ever before. Unfortunately for Maria, she won the ‘cancer lottery’ and in turn justified people’s arguments. According to Cancer Research UK, 10.9 million people on average are diagnosed with cancer every year in every age range, meaning she is one of 0.16% of the world population. Talk about being unlucky… Had she lived to a ripe old age like many other older mothers, she could have been the one to turn around and say ‘BOO-YAH!’

Ageism is also prominent in media. It is said that journalists often use stereotypes, or rather what they THINK they know about certain groups of people, to save time when producing articles and shows. You also see stereotypes in television programmes. My own personal favourite are the characters, ‘Mom’ and ‘Doctor Farnsworth’ in Futurama. Mom – who owns MomCorp – has a corporate image of being a warm, old loving, ‘biddy’, whilst Doctor Farnsworth is the cantankerous old man who walks around in his pajamas, is forgetful and often falls asleep. I like how the creators of Futurama use Mom’s character particularly to play around with the idea of perceptions of old people. Everyone thinks old people are moral and friendly; even the characters within the Futurama world, who are regularly surprised with how ruthless and downright mean Mom turns out to be.

The highest prevalence of ageism, however, is found in the workplace. In February 2009, Dispatches (Channel 4) aired a documentary-style programme called “Too old to work”. In one section of the programme, we are introduced to three individuals who, despite being over fifty, describe themselves as “better workers now than they ever were in their twenties” but expressed difficulty finding work. Interviewed for roles, interviewers suggested they weren’t suited to the role because they would be “bored in [the] role”, that other candidates met their client’s criteria of being “energetic”, “enthusiastic” and “dynamic” and that that there were “cultural differences”.

Of course as external viewers we don’t know the context of their interviews. Perhaps the candidates weren’t coming across as enthusiastic or dynamic, perhaps their cultural backgrounds such as prior employment were too different from the environment they were interviewing at – e.g., differences between going from construction to office environments, or perhaps HR are just terribly shoddy at verbalising rejection. However, considering the terms mentioned above are all ones associated with being younger and considering that ageism is such a high form of discrimination in the UK, even to the point where people don’t realise that they’re doing it, that the three individuals felt discriminated against is hardly surprising.

I’ve been personally – unintentionally – prejudicial towards old people as recently as the last month, in fact, whilst working on researching for this article. I was in Sainsbury’s buying a new plant and joined the first queue I could. My server was an old man who looked over retirement age who was very slow, assisted sporadically by a younger colleague on a till close by. My initial thought was that he’s slow because he’s old. Upon realising this, I made a conscious effort to try to think why he might have been slow, concluding he was perhaps a new employee. The issue I have with ageism is that, barring illness, everyone gets older – often referred to as processional justice – so whilst it might be easy – as I have no doubt, proved – to pre-judge a person, I cannot understand why anyone would actively discriminate against older people. I can almost understand why someone might discriminate against a gay or disabled person, though I do not condone it in any way, on the basis of fear or misunderstanding of the unknown.

Ageing however, is universal. To be fearful of such a thing would be like being fearful of the inevitable, surely?

So why is ageism so prevalent, particularly in the West? There are a number of reasons. To some extent, people don’t understand and are thus fearful of age, resenting any reminder that they, too, will get older and potentially decline. In essence, ageing is simply the body’s inability to replicate new cells, so existing cells are seen to age. It’s a very normal part of human development, but humans are so afraid of the side effects of ageing, being wrinkled skin and ultimately, death, that they try to reverse it with lotions, potions and pills.

But, more importantly, the reason people are so prejudiced towards older people in society is because we learn via models. My mum once told me a story that perfectly illustrates this. One day, a father was seen stretching a rope by his young child. The child asked “what are you doing, daddy?” The father said, “my father is old and of no use to me now, so I am preparing a noose to get rid of him”. One day, the father comes across his own child doing the same and asks him why. The child replies, “I am preparing a rope for when YOU’RE old”. Western societies are built up on nuclear families consisting of mother, father and children. Older people exist in separate entity, usually sent to older peoples homes. In pockets of developed countries, for instance the Mediterranean and Asia, and developing countries, grandparents play an important role, either by sharing wealth of experience, support or certain expertise that is unavailable to younger generations. There is an important morale of people looking after their older generations and not just having them cooped up in a home, not encouraged to be physically or mentally active. In short, the way we treat people rubs off on younger generations. If they are taught to respect and revere older people, giving them what they need, they do so.

Ultimately, the effects of ageism are significant blows to self esteem. If older people are made to feel as if they are burdensome or useless, they begin to see themselves that way, in a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Had I expressed my distaste to that older man in Sainsbury’s for being slow, this would have only served to make him unhappier, cause him to feel self conscious and perform worse than if he were to be given positive reinforcement of how well he was progressing. The same is true for all humans.

So, what can be done to address ageism in society? In the UK, lots of work is being done by the Government to address this. The UK Age Discrimination Act came into place in October 2006, and whilst this is harder to enforce in private sectors, they are slowly following suit. Studies into psychological and sociological development also tell us more about decline. The Seattle Longitudinal Study led by Dr K. Warner Schaie and Dr Sherry L. Willis, for instance, looks particularly at cognitive ageing. Participants from ages 22 to 101 are studied intermittently every seven years. Findings from the study suggest that intellectual decline can be reversed. Interventions performed on participants seen to decline in a cognitive manner showed decline “a function of disuse and is therefore reversible”, that “two thirds of the experimental participants showed significant improvement, and about 40% of those who had declined significantly over 14 years were returned to their pre-decline level.” Furthermore, looking into decline, they found that it could not be demonstrated significantly in the average subject prior to being 60 years old “but that decline could be found for all abilities by age 74”. In other words, whilst it may be an inevitability for humans to decline within the latter years of their life to some degree, decline doesn’t necessarily equate to senile dementia. It could just be some forgetfulness or slightly reduced ability compared to previous. Additionally, the studies suggest that much of the time, intellectual decline is reversible or symptomatic of a deep rooted, predetermined illness.

For many, getting older can feel as if their bodies and their minds have betrayed them, as if being old is happening to them rather than a natural part of growing up. My mother often reminisces about being young and playing football whereas in real time, her body condition is of one that wouldn’t support such an active lifestyle. She sometimes refers to her body as ‘letting her down’; that whilst she feels she is as young as she ever was, her body doesn’t cooperate. Whilst this can be a frustrating aspect of growing older, getting to hear her stories brings me so much joy that I hope will be present for my own children in the future. I hope that knowing what I know about the complexity of ageing and how sensitive a matter it is, that I can be sensitive towards those who are older and to teach younger generations the important part that older people play in society.

If you want to know more and get involved in work being done for older people, go to the following links. And if none of the above inspires you, at least be comfortable in the knowledge that if you do become senile, “you won’t know it”.

http://www.helptheaged.org.uk/en-gb

http://www.ageconcern.org.uk/

http://www.independentage.org.uk/

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