This past week I have had the privilege of spending time with some of the most creative global thinkers and leaders in the space of aged care and older people’s rights by attending both European and Global Ageing meetings in Vienna. It has been invigorating to spend time sharing issues of mutual interest and concern, and recognising the solidarity of shared action, resolve and priority. One of the best contributions in the events was from my colleague Katie Smith Sloan who is the Director of the Global Ageing Network as well as being the CEO of Leading Age, the foremost older people’s care and support membership body in the United States. Katie delivered a tremendous keynote speech with much insight, but one observation which struck home to me was when she noted that one of the reasons that we are witnessing such an increase in age discrimination across the world is that on the whole people, whether policy makers, politicians, or ordinary citizen, we are uncomfortable with recognising the reality that the world’s population is ageing.
That fear of ageing and the associated reluctance to recognise the reality of discrimination against older people, lies at the heart of the International Day of Older Persons which we celebrate and recognise today, the 1st of October. This year the United Nations is marking the day by encouraging us to recognise the amazingly resilient contribution of older women.
They state in recognition of the way in which Covid 19 has exacerbated older person discrimination that:
“While older women continue to meaningfully contribute to their political, civil, economic, social and cultural lives; their contributions and experiences remain largely invisible and disregarded, limited by gendered disadvantages accumulated throughout the life course. The intersection between discrimination based on age and gender compounds new and existing inequalities, including negative stereotypes that combine ageism and sexism…
Recognizing the vital contributions of older women and promoting the inclusion of their voices, perspectives and needs are critical to creating meaningful policies to enhance a holistic response to local, national, and global challenges and catastrophes, UNIDOP 2022 is a call to action and opportunity aimed to embrace the voices of older women and showcase their resilience and contributions in society, while promoting policy dialogues to enhance the protection of older persons human rights and recognize their contributions to sustainable development.”
That call and encouragement should have a particular resonance for the care sector not only because the majority of people who receive social care supports are older women but because the majority of those who deliver that care and support, whether paid or unpaid, are themselves women and many of them living with the challenges of older age.
As the United Nations states the population of the world is ageing and doing so at a faster and increasing rate.
“Over the next three decades, the number of older persons worldwide is projected to more than double, reaching more than 1.5 billion persons in 2050. All regions will see an increase in the size of the older population between 2019 and 2050… the fastest increase is projected to take place in the least developed countries, where the number of persons aged 65 or over could rise from 37 million in 2019 to 120 million in 2050 (225%).”
In Scotland our population is also ageing.
“Those aged 65 and older grow from being 20 per cent of the population in 2022 to 32 per cent of the population in 2072. 9. These changes mean Scotland’s population is projected to be 7.6 years older on average in 2072 than in 2022, in comparison the UK population is set to be 6.1 years older over the same time period.” Trends-in-Scotlands-population-and-effects-on-the-economy-and-income-tax-August-2022.pdf (fiscalcommission.scot)
So, is it true that we are frightened of growing old both as individuals and as a society? Is that why we fear to be honest with the truth because we have swallowed the quest of seeking the illusive fountain of youthfulness? Indeed, most societies have in literature and art, in design and fashion portrayed the allure of youthfulness, equating beauty and creativity, vibrancy and life with youthfulness. It is maybe not surprising therefore that when older age is reflected upon it is with a language highlighting decline and deficit, diminishment, and decay. It is about what can no longer be done, the limitations of body and mind, the past is viewed with a yearnsomness and desire which is lost forever.
I do not think we will ever address all the systemic and political lack of priority, value and status around social care which I often reflect upon, without alongside it challenging the pervasive ageism that afflicts our societies, not just in Scotland but in so many countries. We will never meet the challenge of support, care and health care without spinning on its axis our age presumption and bigotry. This will not simply be achieved by the occasional fashion magazine employing older age models, or advertising being more reflective of its consumers, or ageist language being more frequently challenged in daily discourse – all of which are important – ageism requires a societal shifting of the sands. We need in the present moment to witness the same degree of popular and civic campaigning which in the 1960s and 70s led to us addressing gender and sex-based discrimination. We need to reach a stage where ageist behaviours, assumptions and stereotypes are as unacceptable as those against an individual’s race or ethnicity or any individual characteristic. But we also need to become more comfortable with age, revolutionise our thinking with a dose of positivity and a celebration of the benefits of older age as well as some of the limitations. We have a long way to go before we can truly say we are an age positive society, one that not only gets up and offers a seat to those who are old but lets that population take control of the destination. It will perhaps come when people stop asking what can be achieved in older age and reflect rather on the creativity of a poet writing her best work, an artist painting in a new style, a mother reconciled to a daughter, a father holding a hard conversation for the first time in his life, someone being able to be honest with themselves about their identity – all actions and experiences I have witnessed in the lives of those in their nineties. Positive change can happen until the last breaths of life.
The late Scottish poet Elma Mitchell with her usual directness describes the ageing of a woman’s body but tantalisingly wonders does older age lie to youth or is youthfulness the delusion of deceit? A revolution of ageist presumption is required by the whole of society so that we learn to see beyond the chronology of years to recognise the value of individuality without condition and without the label of age to limit insight.
Good Old Days
My neck, where love ran
Just under the skin
Is now an old rickety ladder to the brain.
My breasts, a full delight
For child and man,
To carry rival jewels,
Dangle now untidy,
The wishbone of my legs
Has changed their wishes’ destination,
Shin repeats to shin,
Welcome, death, you may come in.
I should be cheerless
As a crow in winter fields
When the light is going
But up here, at the top of the spine, behind the eyes,
Curtained a little, but not blind,
Sits a young and laughing mind
Wondering which part of me is telling lies.
from The Human Cage (Peterloo Poets, 1979)