Portraying over-60s as doddery old fools sees a resource go to waste

Portraying over-60s as doddery old fools sees a resource go to waste

The thought of that Wiltshire Farms driver Jimmy turning up at my door to deliver a ready-made meal gives me the heebie jeebies, so it does.

These ads are just a sample of how media portrays old people. Mainstream media. It’s in mainstream media that older people are relentlessly clueless, helpless, countrified old farts, who depend on home help or frozen puddings.

This portrayal becomes even more demeaning during the winter, when do-gooders start telling the general public to check on their neighbours; this based on a tiny number of old people who die alone and are not found for months.

Of course it is sad if someone who was aching for contact dies on their own, but the vast majority of the over-60s — like me — in the boil notice areas of Dublin are quite capable of boiling their own water, without worthies arriving at the door to remind them. The turbidity of Fingal’s water supply is adding to the turbidity of the public portrait of the older person.

It matters how older people are painted by mass media, just as it matters how women are portrayed. Fifty years ago, we realised that if women were always pictured in newspapers draped across thebonnets of cars, or if they figured on TV only as giggling, model-thin, decorative side-kicks, this did tend to leach into the public’s perception of women. It insulted them andlimited their options.

It took a long fight to get us to a point where, if a woman is presented on media as a brainless sex-object, the entity doing the presentation gets an immediate thumping and is left, covered in its own apologies, with the backward-thrown advice to ‘let that be a lesson to you’.

So the view of themselves women get from mainstream media has improved a lot, with even Disney cartoons showing a bit of woke,although the number of idiots who still greet little girls in the supermarket as “princesses” shows how long it takes for a stereotype to die off.

Meanwhile, unchallenged, a stereotype of older people is being established without any opposition from anybody. The fact that it affects older women worse than older men is predictable, but unacceptable.

One aspect of this stereotyping is advertising. Ads for supermarket chains such as Lidl and Aldi present us with adorable types in their twenties and thirties; heads of families devoted to cutting down the cost of their weekly shop or couples growing cows or making yogurt.

The catalogues rarely, if ever, show older people, even though the country is rife with examples of 70- and 80-year-olds still farming, pulling pints, or running their own businesses.

Of course, the supermarket chains may not like the look of older people. In which case, they are entitled to their ageist thoughts. What they’re not entitled to, however, are their ageist actions.

If, by failing to represent a vast chunk of the population in a promotional catalogue, they contribute to making that chunk of people less visible or contributory, they should be nailed for it. Especially when that catalogue is being dropped into people’s homes once a week.

It’s not new, this ignoring or typecasting of older people. Afternoon television used to be an old person’s ghetto, with large groups of the elderly bussed into RTÉ to reminisce, because what else would older people do, only reminisce?

Today, so many people in their seventies are doing a highly professional, if unpaid, job of caring for their grandchildren and ferrying them to venues on their social calendar. They don’t have the time to reminisce.

That’s on top of the ones who are still working, although you never — simply NEVER — see a photograph in media of someone who is 70 using an IPad. Unless, of course, a caring younger person is leaning over their shoulder to help them use it. Older people — even in the Angelus, for God’s sake — are seen as engaged in charmingly anachronistic crafts that make us all go “aaah”.

Like we go “aaah” when a licenced, feisty oul’ wan is let onto a radio programme to talk about a survey of loneliness.

Older people are often made one-dimensional, rather than them naturally becoming so. The exception — and this was in social, rather than mainstream media — was Stefanie Preissner’s then 90-year-old smart grandmother, whose observations on life and media were uploaded by her granddaughter.

Preissner recently wrote that Ireland’s veterans tend to be seen as demented once they reach a certain age.

“Rather than being mined for their acumen and experience, they’re eye-rolled at and the nation turns to millennials, who have no experience or capabilities for answers — because we fetishise youth — and no one puts two and two together when we run into the same problems every 20-30 years, across all sectors of society,” said Preissner.

Because once people learn the lesson or how to fix the problem, we call them old, ignore them, and turn to children to find ‘creative’ solutions. As though housing crises or hospital bed shortages are a community games colouring competition.

People now in their sixties, seventies, and eighties have gone through a greater variety of change than any generation before them, and we’ve heard plenty about that panoply of change in the coverage of Gay Byrne’s demise. But they figure in advertising like survivors from a Lady Gregory play:

“God bless you and keep you, Jimmy,‘tis glad I am to see you and you bringing me the smaller portions I prefer.”

Jimmy, in response, says something about his own mother being the same. Oh, right. Genericise all old birds, while you’re at it, why don’t you? Jimmy (or his pal, I have merciful amnesia about the identity of these Wiltshire Farm blokes) observes in another ad that the gate was open.

Big threat to the life and safety of his old customer, don’t you know? His old customer says the grandchildren were swinging out of it yesterday, adding something passive-aggressive, to the effect that she, nonetheless, wouldn’t be without them.

The home care ads (not including the one starring Thelma Mansfield) are equally putrid. One of them has jolly banter, with a carer laughingly accusing the old person of “oul’ plámás”.

I do not blame the advertising agencies, because they would swiftly produce marketing data to prove that what they put in their ads works.

Anyway, it’s not simply an issue of advertising. It’s also an issue of absence. The nation keeps hearing, from politicians and others, about our demographic bulge, with the implication that the country is literally going pear-shaped, with the number of old people.

Instead of being profiled frequently in the totality of their interesting lives, old people appear only in three ways: As a problem; a pantomime character, or not at all.

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