As you know, I work a lot with our elders and so of course I listen to them and what they have to say. I have met thousands of elders now through my projects and all of them have been inspirational in their own way. Much of what they tell me is positive and a lot of people have great attitudes, even if they are facing huge challenges to them such as mobility issues or even dementia.
I also meet a lot of people who are not so positive. This piece is not to tell those who are feeling low that they must change and “cheer up”, far from it. What I’m trying to explore is how potentially our attitudes towards ageing are contributing to the negative experiences of many of our older society.
“I hate old age”
“Pain? It’s just ageing isn’t it”
“Don’t get old”
“I’m too old for that now”
“I’m too old to try”
These are just a handful of comments I’ve had from some really lovely older people who aren’t wholly negative about their lives but it’s clear they hold an entire belief system around their age that is telling them what they can and can’t be.
And I’m certain this didn’t suddenly enter their minds when they turned 65. It’s drummed into us so early. Our whole society is set up to value youth above all and discount the wisdom of our elders.
We are shown representations of elders in television and film that make fun of old age. They use lazy writing tropes such as deafness or memory loss and so these become a template for what we think we will encounter.
We treat older people as though they are stupid. We speak louder and more slowly to them whether or not they have hearing problems. We laugh behind their backs, roll eyes, give knowing glances and generally dismiss their presence.
So is it any wonder that people become ill and depressed as they reach their older years?
Surely it makes sense that if we expect to have illness and reduced mobility as we get older, then this will come to pass? Just as if we tell ourselves we are less attractive as we age, then it will be so as we’ll see ourselves as such and then project that to the world.
If we expect people to not want to listen to us, we will stop speaking. Stop going out because we are not wanted anyway, which in turn leads younger people to believe that older people become dull and lifeless. And so you can see how the attitudes are self perpetuating.
I think this will be individual to each person as to how much they hold these views and how it impacts on their health but I would love us to change our views surrounding old age and death also.
I’d like to add that I do not hold these views at all. I can see how they manifest and also some of the reasons why, but I always challenge them, in the kindest ways I can, when I come across them being held. I offer suggestions, try and spark as much joy as I can with music and make sure I see smiles and hear laughter as much as I can.
A change needs to happen though if we are to tackle these issues.
I would like to call for a shift in how we view old age. I am only in my thirties so I cannot be a true ambassador for that (yet) by showing through how I live but I intend to be as I grow older. And I implore you to do the same, to defy the conventions set for us.
Do not “grow old gracefully” because that is synonymous with accepting all of the nonsensical narratives we hold about age- that you must retire even if it’s from what you love, that you need to slow down (I aim to live beautifully slowly anyway) that we have less of a voice, that old age brings suffering and pain.
This is NOT how it needs to be. I’m not saying a long life will not bring challenges. Of course it will, but we can decide how we face them and how we tell our stories.
Grow old shamelessly! Carry on doing what you love, know it’s ok to make changes, don’t accept ill health as being part of old age, we can still stay well and healthy and live a life of joy right up until our time here is at an end.
Change starts within ourselves but as we’re working on that, let’s change our communities too. Place value on conversations with our elders. Don’t see popping into an isolated older neighbour’s house as a charitable act but as a gift for you both in what you may learn from each other. Make elders feel included and loved, so that when your time to become their age arrives you will find yourself in a beautiful, loving community also.
I know that I’m going to work very hard on changing my own beliefs surrounding age right now so I’m as happy and healthy as I can be for the rest of my life and I wish for you all the same!