You’ll be older too: why we need to rethink ageing

July 9, 2013

By Emily Millane

Send me a postcard, drop me a line
Stating point of view.
Indicate precisely what you meant to say
Yours Sincerely, Wasting away.

We tend to think about ageing as a downward trajectory. Feeble, frail, wasting away. This is our fate when we’re 64. We will be old and near the end.

Our attitudes towards ageing have remained largely unchanged since the fab four released When I’m 64 in 1967. But our demographics are changing rapidly, and our attitudes have to change with it.

The Australian Human Rights Commission published its report Fact or Fiction? Stereotypes of older Australians last month after conducting a survey of community attitudes to older people, including older Australians themselves. It also did a qualitative analysis of media treatment of older people.

A view common to all age groups surveyed was that older people are to some extent invisible in our society, and that the media plays a significant role in this. A sample of media drawn from the highest-rating and widest-circulating outlets showed that people aged 65 and over were featured in 4.7% of advertising content and mentioned in 6.6% of editorial media content.

When older people do make it into the media, it’s usually in a negative context. Some 73% of survey respondents said stories they saw in the media increased the perception that older people were victims, while 62% of respondents said the media added to the perception of older people as bad drivers. The media (print and digital) also influences community perceptions that older people are lonely and isolated. Many respondents felt the media portrayed older people as forgetful, frail, slow, fragile, sick or grumpy. Significantly, the majority of respondents felt that the portrayal of older people in the media was not a fair representation of older people. This view was held across age groups.

As Age Discrimination Commissioner Susan Ryan notes, the negative stereotyping of older people has had a profound impact. It has influenced the attitudes of younger generations, prejudiced employers and been detrimental to the way older people view themselves. One older respondent to the survey said: “I call it being invisible, nobody sees you, and your opinion does not matter. I feel very vulnerable.”

What needs to change?

Being old doesn’t mean you’ve fallen off the perch. The media needs to stop conflating the two. Older people are still contributing to society in economic, social and political ways. Celebrated American author Joyce Carol Oates is still churning out books (and tweets) at 75. Governor-General Quentin Bryce is 70, and our Australian of the Year Ita Buttrose is 71. And if you need some guidance on how to run a worldwide media conglomerate, just ask 82-year-old Rupert Murdoch.

We mark the big birthdays with parties, and we have certain ideas about what happens in each life phase and what we should have done and by when. But people age in different ways. As former prime minister Julia Gillard has said, baby boomers changed what it meant to be young, and they will change what it means to be old in the same way. They will want choice, financial security and opportunity in ways previous generations did not.

Active ageing is not an aberration; increasingly, it is the norm. For example, the rate of volunteering and other forms of civic activity among over 65s in Australia has been steadily increasing. Older Australians play a significant role in raising grandchildren, in welfare and community groups, and they are participants in education and training, both as teachers and as students.

It’s said Paul McCartney wrote When I’m 64 when his father reached that age. At that time, 64 was the age which people began to wind down, to contemplate a house down by the Isle of Wight from which to write their letters. The remaining Beatles have now all surpassed this age. It’s time the media surpassed the stereotypes that go with it.