Being Age Proud – the personal as well as the political

2 Mar 2020

As a part of the Age Proud Bristol campaign, we asked local author, Guy Roberston, to share his views on ageism. Guy was involved in the creation of BAB in 2015 and since then has gone on to write a book on, ‘The Ten Steps of Positive Ageing’. We asked Guy for his views on the #AgeProud movement.

Ageism is probably the last ‘socially acceptable’ discrimination left in society. Jokes about older people and ageing are rife and are seldom challenged. Services and policies are often based on very stereotypical and segregationist ideas about older people. Even the positively motivated arrangements for older people can often betray a patronising air, based on stereotypical attitudes about presumed frailty and vulnerability.

Discrimination is fed by attitudes towards identity. If we are to do anything about tackling ageism we therefore need to start to challenge the perceived identity that society foists on older people. We need to be proud of who we are. 

Ageism is no laughing matter. There is a significant and growing amount of research which demonstrates how negative attitudes about age can have a very detrimental impact on older people’s health and wellbeing. Perhaps the best well known example is the research conducted by Becca Levy[1] who demonstrated that people who hold negative attitudes about their own ageing process die on average 7.6yrs earlier than those with more positive attitudes! Many other research studies have validated these finding and gone further to demonstrate damage to older people’s wellbeing in a number of other areas, from cognitive functioning thought to their ability to perform normal activities of daily living.

For our own wellbeing we therefore need to become aware of and challenge the way in which we internalise ageist stereotypes. But where to start? 

One of the principal ways that ageing is denigrated and characterised as something to be resisted and be ashamed of, is the simple act of telling people ‘how young you look’, or how ‘you don’t look your age’. Although delivered as a form of flattery, when you think about it, this kind of statement caries a very pernicious and stigmatising message about the most natural and universal processes – ageing. In essence it is saying that ageing is ‘not ok’ and certainly not attractive.

This kind of undermining is particularly damaging because as we get older, our perceived age becomes our defining characteristic. Our primary identity in society becomes our age ahead of other gender or racial characteristics. Now imagine transposing this form of ‘flattery’ to other groups – “Oh, how white you look!”, or “Oh, how able bodied you look!”, or “Oh, how straight you look!”. Totally unacceptable. But why do we accept it in relation to ageing?

Time for a change. 
It is time to be age proud. It is time to reject and challenge the comments and ideas that undermine our ageing identities. It is time to be proud of the age that we are. Trying to be younger than we are is trying to be not who we actually are. It buys into the idea that ‘youth’ is superior and more desirable than ‘age’.

We need to take action at two levels.  Firstly we need to challenge ageist negativity when you come across it in our day to day lives – just as the Bristol Age Proud movement is starting to do.  Secondly, we need to take some personal action to ensure that our own thoughts and beliefs are not being contaminated by ageism assumptions.  In my new book ‘The Ten Steps of Positive Ageing’, I set out some practical self-development techniques to help people to do this.  Drawn from various forms of humanistic psychology they cover ideas around nurturing positive beliefs, savouring life lessons, routing out and replacing negative beliefs, and using visualisation techniques and the power of the self-fulfilling prophecy.  Using these techniques can help us all to be more Age Proud!

Find out more aboit Positive Ageing on Guy's website. 

[1] LEVY, B., SLADE, M., KUNKEL, S. & KASL, S. V. 2002. Longevity Increased by Positive Self-Perceptions of Aging. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 261-270.

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