Turning the world purple: a reflection for International Older Persons Day.

Today the 1st October marks the 30th Anniversary of the International Day of Older Persons. It is a United Nations event which focusses on continued age discrimination across the world and which this year, also the “Year of the Nurse and Midwife”, seeks to highlight the role of the health care workforce in contributing to the health of older persons. In doing so it seeks to give special recognition to the nursing profession and to give a primary focus to the role of women in health and care.

When these themes were decided some time ago no one could have imagined that we would have faced the traumatic year that we have had and are still experiencing. It has been a year which has underlined the need to focus on older people not least because of the appalling truth that the majority of the million people who have died as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic have been aged over 75.  At different points over the last few months we have had occasion to reflect on the existence of unequal treatment of those who are old in the way in which society has responded to the pandemic. At the start we had casual careless talk describing Covid19 as a ‘baby-boomer harvest’, then we had questionable ethical frameworks which envisaged age to be the main criteria to use in any decision to withhold treatment should resources become restricted, and most recently we have heard of suggestions that we should ‘lockdown the old’ in order to let the rest of society get on with life.

Our attitudes to older age, whether positive or negative, are, I believe deeply influenced and shaped by our experience of older age in our early years and upbringing. It is those experiences which will to a greater or lesser extent embed within us a belief that older age is something that continues to have value and offers contribution, or alternatively that we associate older age with deterioration, incapacity and a lack of creativity.

I have mentioned before in this blog my Aunt Effie from Skye. When I think of age, and older age, I think of her. She was a character who stood physically tall and strong, intellectually robust and rooted, at one and the same time melancholic and reflective, fun and frivolous. I marvelled at her daily consumption into her nineties of the written word from novel to textbook, from newspaper to magazine. I was left enthralled by her forensic ability to trace her family tree back three hundred years, a feat achieved in the pre-internet age through telephone and letter – and all at the age of 95. So, for me age has always been a chronological clock that granted the individual free expression, space and time, that blossomed creativity and insight. That is not to deny my own personal awareness and family truth of those who have been limited and imprisoned by dementia and decline, whose lives have been shortened by the lostness of disease and whose living has spoken of sadness and confusion. But overwhelmingly older age is for me a positive characteristic.

So it is that I have always been very fond of the brilliant iconoclastic poem ‘Warning’ by Jenny Joseph which at one stage was the most popular poem in the UK. You might know it: –

“When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick flowers in other people’s gardens
And learn to spit.

You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go
Or only bread and pickle for a week
And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes.

But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
And pay our rent and not swear in the street
And set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.

But maybe I ought to practise a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.”

There is a delicious irony in that when she grew older Jenny Joseph was asked if she would start wearing purple anytime soon, to which she replied, “I can’t stand purple. It doesn’t suit me.”

Today as we reflect on what active and healthy ageing is all about – even in the midst of a pandemic which threatens older age – I think it is time for us all to start to wear purple. It is time to turn upside down the conventional assumptions about age and challenge the prejudice which devalues older age and puts youth on a pedestal. It is time to shout down and decry the subconscious discriminatory presumption that the old are incapable of individual choice and decision, of creative contribution and radical change.

On too many occasions during our pandemic response we have treated those who are old with an obscene paternalism and syrupy protectionism which ignores their intelligence and capacity, their autonomy and energy. We have talked about corralling residents in care homes into units to protect them; we have failed to ask and give voice to those whose lives we have restricted and whose capacity for consent we have removed; we have done to rather than working with. Even today we see this paternalism in the desire of some politicians and commentators to rush to become the jailers of the elderly on the pretence that we must protect those most at risk.

The old are not passive passengers in life but they are the living witnesses of years of hard knocks and experience. Age enables in many the ability to nurture the humility that comes from error and failure and from that ground to grow an honesty and sensitivity to others. We ignore that insight at our peril as we repeat the mistakes of the past in every passing moment.

Stepping into the future with our older citizens, wherever they live in our communities, whether alone or with others, is about making a commitment that no one will be left behind, no voice will be unheard because it has lost its strength, no contribution will be dismissed because it is articulated by age.

To be valued, to find a place, to be able to give, to contribute, to participate are fundamental to our health and well-being. Healthy ageing is not about keeping simply the body and the frame of skeleton alive, it is about enabling the passion and power of age to express itself in the whole of our lives and communities. So, as we all grow older in Scotland, I hope we can also tap the potential of every individual in order to maximise the health benefits which come from feeling you can still make a difference.

So, in your place of home, in your place of work, in your place of relaxation, think today about how you can include all the generations, and value especially the gifts, abilities, capacities of those who are older. Think not just about how we protect and keep safe but about how we listen to, learn from, allow to grow and critically allow older age to disrupt and contradict.

Let us all therefore work together to step into a future where every older person can find their place to give, share and be. Let us all  wear a red hat that doesn’t suit and learn to kick over the traces of conformity! It is time for all of us to start to practise for the days of purple.

Donald Macaskill