Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 25 October 2014

Appreciate us as older... don't dismiss us as elderly

As a people we don't much like talking about the ageing process. So when did growing older become so taboo, asks Duane Farrell

Robert McNeill's column in the Belfast Telegraph last week focussed on a new survey by US pollsters Gallop, which revealed that we're at our happiest at 85.

Great news, indeed. Robert, in his inimitable tongue-in-cheek fashion, commented that, "Very rarely, you encounter a genuinely old person who has escaped their home for a few minutes... They all look so miserable and grim. No wonder."

No wonder, in fact, that there's a whole lot of confusion about getting older. What's a "genuinely old" person for a start?

The aforementioned poll tells us that reaching the age of 85 marks a positive step in our happiness trajectory, yet it seems we currently exist in a time when getting older is only discussed in terms of disgust.

Only last week, for instance, Channel 4 broadcasted a programme entitled How Not To Get Old, which looked at ways to turn back the clock, including extreme options such as surgery. When did growing older become so taboo?

There are two sides to the ageing story. But it's hard to hear any sides when people are reticent about even having the debate.

As a people, we do not like to talk about ageing. We don't like to even think about getting older.

How many of us are happy to refer to ourselves as old, or older? The first wrinkle, the first grey hair, the first age-spot – these are all things that cause concern. Rather than welcoming these changes as part of life's rich experience, we're becoming ever more obsessed with preventing their further onslaught.

Getting older can mean different things to different people. Age NI's mission is to improve the lives of people in later life – we're only too aware of the money, health, care and ageism challenges that many face in Northern Ireland. But, we are also here to shine a light on the positive ageing experiences of thousands of people.

Part of the reason that this age taboo exists is the belief that older people are all the same; that they all have the same interests; that they all have the same concerns; that they are all, as Robert McNeill put it, "miserable and grim".

Try telling that to the sky-diving 70-year-old. Or the 109-year-old Facebook fan. Or the 60-year-old who's fallen in love all over again at the arrival of her new grandchild.

Let's face it, we've all met plenty of teenagers who have been miserable and grim, as we have 20, 30, 40, and 50, 60, 70 and 80-year-olds.

Age doesn't suddenly come upon you and turn you into an "elderly" stereotype.

Life's a melting pot of people with a whole range of interests, approaches, worries and attitudes, irrespective of age. To imply otherwise merely contributes to the continuation of ageist stereotypes. So, here's the lie of the land. We have a rapidly ageing society. There are more people over 50 than under 19 in Northern Ireland at this very moment. Whether we like to talk about it, or not, both the challenges and the opportunities of ageing will be topics of discussion for a long time to come. It's about time we started looking to later life as an opportunity to be happier and revelling in the fact that 85 appears to be a very happy age.

Reaching another birthday should be a joyous celebration of our experiences, as well as our ongoing aspirations. We shouldn't have to stop hoping and dreaming because we are older. This is going to mean a big culture shift and requires honest discussion. We need to start recognising the exceptional older role models around us and valuing age and experience.

Let's face it, wouldn't we all much rather be appreciated in our years to come as older and not dismissed as elderly?

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