Ageing is for all ages: a reflection.

I was chatting to my 9-year-old daughter the other day about the Global Ageing conference and events which are coming to Glasgow in a few weeks. She turned to me and asked, ‘Are there going to be young people and children there?’ I replied that there were sessions on inter-generational work but I wasn’t sure if there would be children. Her retort was ‘Ageing is for everyone not just old people. Children are ageing.’ Out of the mouths of babes ….

Because of course, she is right. The way we age is for all generations and years. And yet I am made to reflect on the extent to which both in policy and practice we are not always inclusive of the perspectives of the young when we consider ageing. Have we made ageing just the preserve of the middle and older generations? If the saying that youthfulnes is too important to leave it to the young is true, is it also true that older age is too important to be left to those who might think of themselves as old?

I continue to be shocked by what I see and read on social media about attitudes to older age in particular. Even this past week when responding to the news that there were increases in the rate of Covid19 in some parts of the UK one person on ‘Twitter’ or is it X, stated quite openly that it was positive as it would remove more old people and thus reduce the pressure on the NHS!

We have a long way to go before we create a society where all ages matter and are valued and treated with dignity and respect. Our humanity and our lives should not have a use by date stamped on it dependent upon another’s perceived sense of value.

Today is the United Nation’s International Youth Day. This is an annual event to celebrate younger age and is not unlike the similar event to recognise the value and contribution of older age held on the 1st October each year. This year’s theme is

Green Skills for Youth: Towards a Sustainable World. It is a recognition of our global transition towards an environmentally sustainable and climate-friendly world. As it states ‘a successful transition towards a greener world will depend on the development of green skills in the population. Green skills are “knowledge, abilities, values and attitudes needed to live in, develop and support a sustainable and resource-efficient society”.

All ages can, I suspect agree and applaud such a statement.  I hope that International Youth Day will as always enhance its message. But whether it is this year’s theme or any other it is not a campaign or destination that will succeed or be reached by the young alone, any more than any campaign of an older age group or day can be successful without the voice, presence, and contribution of the young. So why do we consistently act as if we are all on different journeys?

We have come a long way from a situation where it was believed that engaging with young people in the aged care sector was about the quarterly visit of primary school children into a care home to entertain and perform (though there is nothing wrong with that!). The work of organisations like ‘Generations Working Together’ has shown us that real inter- or multi- generational work is not to consolidate the cultural stereotypes of age but to challenge them. The young child visiting a care home has so much story and vision to share and the older resident has so much creativity and innovation to commence in the dialogue between the ages. One is not passive and the other active. There must be a mutuality of understanding that each generation, each person has as much to learn and share, to receive and give as the next.

Organisations like GWT have a vision, which in their case is ‘to live in a Scotland where different generations are more connected, and everyone has the opportunity to build relationships that help to create a fairer society.’

This is about moving and breaking down the barriers of ignorance and stereotype, priority and policy which can present blocks and stop the generations from working together.

So, whilst it is always going to be important that we challenge discrimination where one group is treated more or less favourably than other – and that still exists in our society in relationship to age as the older you are the more likely to be the victim of discrimination you become – we need to expend as much priority and resource upon  inter-generational working.

Ageing belongs to everyone – it is not just the preserve or focus of one demographic group. What do the young say about what it means to age? What does ageing mean to the youth of today? Well that is inevitably a very individual question but one thing we know is that there is a library full of research papers and reports that show that people who view the ageing process in a positive manner and as something to enable them to achieve their potential and dreams tend to enjoy much better health into their later years than people who think about ageing as decline and deterioration, frailty and loss of independence. A positive attitude around ageing benefits us both physiologically and emotionally. If we think positively about growing old, then we live longer – it is as simple as that!

In the face of such overwhelmingly clear research around being positive about ageing, it would also have to be admitted that the cultural stereotypes about older age still dominate and perhaps have become even more consolidated.

Ageing really is for everyone – it is the business of our whole society not just to challenge negative attitudes and behaviours (which remains critical) but to start to celebrate, value, appreciate and herald older age and ageing. My nine-year-old is absolutely right and I hope by the time she reaches ninety she will belong to a community and a nation where all generations celebrate together as well as on their own days for youth and older age.

I agree with the positivity of the Argyll based poet Rebecca Pine:

Old Age

I have, I think, most organs that
I started with. Some shaped by time
foreshortened, elongated, dulled.
I keep at bay time’s passage with the thought
this must I do, this might I do, this ought.
Thus never having nothing on my slate
I draw a little, dance a little, write;
and sometimes in the middle of the night
think splendid thoughts which trickle down
to verse. While opera and music still delight;
there’s history and nature to explore
and conversation with the worldly wise,
I’m washed by tides like pebbles on the shore.

Old age! Old age?
I’m sorry sir, I fail to recognise
the title on the page.

Old Age by Rebecca Pine – Scottish Poetry Library

Photo by Paolo Bendandi on Unsplash

Donald Macaskill