Let’s ditch ageing stereotypes now

Stock images of a pair of wrinkled hands used to represent older people are deeply unfair and don’t remotely tell the person’s story, finds Margaret Jennings.

Let’s ditch ageing stereotypes now

A CATCHY hashtag #NoMoreWrinklyHands is leading a twitter campaign to challenge the way society and the media portray older people in a one- dimensional and often disrespectful way.

The phrase is rooted in the fact that quite often news stories or research reports about people in later life, are portrayed online by pictures of a pair of folded wrinkly hands or other disembodied images, which is dehumanising claim the objectors.

“I’m not sure if it’s lazy journalists reaching for stock photos or whether there is a deliberate desire to portray later life as miserable. It makes me really cross,” says Sara Livadeas, who is a consultant to the UK care sector and one of the leading online advocates for change.

“I am just happy to see so many people on Twitter now using the hashtag and regularly sending me offending news articles and more often fabulous pictures of their older friends and relatives generally having a good time, which I like to retweet,” she tells Feelgood.

“I am genuinely concerned that people will fear ageing and the conditions that come with ageing due to this negative portrayal; images that just show a disembodied hand or a slippered foot — suggesting miserable people waiting to die. Old age is not like that,” she says.

However, what about the online images and videos we see of older people doing extreme things “for their age”, which is quite the opposite? “I don’t like pictures of older people running marathons or jumping out of aeroplanes,” says the 54-year-old.

“I think this pressure to be like younger people is generated by commercial interests from companies that want to sell us products to help us stay ‘young’. I don’t want to spend a third of my life feeling dissatisfied because I am old, I want to be happy as I am, and if that means sitting around playing Scrabble and listening to the radio then so be it,” she says.

What is lost sight of in all of this, is the fact that we are not one homogenous group as we age, no more than those at any other stage of life, says Kieran Walsh, professor of ageing and public policy and director of the Irish Centre for Social Gerontology at NUIG.

“Some of the work I do is around how our images and our media are effectively acting to create a sort of discourse around groups that is not positive. In the context of ageing and older people in Ireland, we certainly suffer from a bit of that. It’s heightened for certain sub groups of the older population and it’s probably in some ways driven by some elements of ageism, among us all, including the older population themselves and how we view ageing in older life,” he says.

“But if you look at life expectancy now and averages are going into the 80s at this stage you’re talking about quite an extensive period that encompasses so many life roles, life changes and so many different groups of older people moving through those different stages.

“It’s really inappropriate to think about this population group as being homogenous or all being in the same life-stage, which is certainly not the case”, he says.

He says we need to develop policies in Ireland that move beyond just the limitations of health and pension issues. “I think our images and our understanding of ageing and older people needs to adapt to the reality; we all have older people in our lives and many of those individuals would fulfil a range of different roles in different ways so it’s about reflecting that a little bit more.” What we really need to do is capture the reality of the in-between and everyday life of people’s routines, he says.

“At different points and different aspects of life we might feel a little bit more dependant and at others we won’t and that’s probably true at every life stage and it is about reflecting that a bit more. It’s about being aware of representing the diversity that we have in our older population, as the key issue and probably a key challenge.

“The broader questions about how these images are pervasive. I think that’s probably something that comes back to maybe an engrained ageism among all of us, in terms of how on one level we critique the stereotypes and clichés and on another level we kind of sign up to it a little bit.

“Although I think that’s something that has changed over the past five to 10 years, it’s certainly still there as well you still can see some examples of that in social and public policy so we do need to challenge that a bit more.”

So rather than having the two extreme images — those pushing boundaries at one end and the frail dependant on the other, we need to portray more of what is in between?

“Exactly. And even within that if you were within one of those two groups, if you were very active, or very frail, you’re still getting on with your life and it’s necessary to acknowledge that... It’s more about representing the continuity of life for an individual.”

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