No wonder ageing is so feared when images of loneliness and frailty in old age are so prevalent
Anne Karpf The Guardian, Sunday 16 December 2012.
Pensioners in Blackpool. ‘It’s absurd to depict people aged from 60 to 100 as a single cohort.’ Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian
It’s December, and so time for us to be urged to think about old people. A dog might not be just for Christmas, but old people (it sometimes seems) are. Of course, the charities that have recently launched their campaigns to alleviate loneliness among “the elderly” at Christmas – the WRVS, Friends of the Elderly, Action on Elder Abuse – don’t just snap into action in late November and December, they agitate in various ways all year round. And the figures are undoubtedly shaming – 17% of old people have contact with friends, family and neighbours less than once a week, 11% less than once a month. Yet these campaigns are disturbing not only in the way they intend: inadvertently, they encourage us to see old people almost exclusively through the prism of loneliness, frailty and vulnerability.
But if nearly one in five old people are lonely, more than four in five presumably aren’t. This doesn’t mean that we should wave away concern about loneliness in old age, any more than we could justify inaction about homelessness or rape by pointing out that most people aren’t homeless or raped: enough are for it to be a legitimate cause for concern. Yet loneliness has become such a persistent trope in the representation of old people that it risks being seen as some kind of inevitable attribute of old age. Not all old people who live alone are lonely; conversely many young people are (indeed there may be more stigma attached to the young lonely).
I had a neighbour in her 80s who gleefully told me one year of her carefully cultivated plan to spend Christmas Day on her own, doing exactly what she wanted. She had to fight off legions of friends, family and charities who tried to persuade her to change her mind. Last month 90-year-old Diana Mallows had to be evacuated from her flooded home in Somerset. Most of the news reports framed this in an “old vulnerable victim” way. In fact Mallows had retreated to the first floor of her farmhouse, determined to sit out the floods, until a power cut meant that she had no heat and couldn’t make herself a cup of tea. The reality wasn’t victimhood but resilience, self-reliance and stoicism.
We routinely hear about old people as recipients of care; yet they are also massive providers of it. According to the National Citizenship Survey, 30% of 65- to 74-year-olds volunteer regularly, as do 20% of people 75 and over. Volunteering explodes the divide between old people as the objects of welfare and its dispensers; it enables them to tackle other people’s social exclusion and their own at the same time.
A report by ResPublica last year found that when it came to civil activism, – acting as local councillors, school governors or magistrates – people over 75 were as active as 26- to 34-year-olds. One reason they give for volunteering is personal growth – yes, even at 90. If this surprises us it’s because we’ve fallen for the myth that growth is arrested in old age: if change happens it must be in the direction of decline. This is the deficit model of ageing, in which old people are infantilised. As social anthropologists Jenny Hockey and Allison James have argued, “elderly people have been transformed into metaphoric children”.
It’s absurd, of course, to depict people aged from 60 to 100 as a single cohort (imagine doing the same for any other four decade span of life, say 0 to 40), or even to think of all 78-year-olds as alike. In fact people become more, and not less, diverse as they age. Few, moreover, see their age as their most significant characteristic. That’s why you so often hear people say, “I may be 88 but I still feel 20 inside”. My mother, filling in the census form when she was 90, ticked yes to the question “Do you look after an old person?”, and she didn’t mean herself. Old is always older than us.
We seem to need to be reminded over and over again that old people are human. No wonder ageing is so feared when images of victimhood in old age are so prevalent. This isn’t an argument for the denial of old age, or for the stigmatisation of frailty, but mental vitality doesn’t depart just because physical limitations may arrive. And when we stereotype old people as feeble we obliterate the fact that many are angry. See for instance on YouTube, a group of older people in London, part of the Bolder Project, singing “The Bankers Are To Blame” about their rage at the cuts in social services.
Myself, I want to see more images of matriarchs, patriarchs and battleaxes. Bring back Ena Sharples.