For too long, both verbal and visual language has been used to dehumanise older people and depict ageing in a negative light. Such attitudes to ageing have been brought to light by the pandemic, with suggestions that older people’s lives are ‘less valuable’ than those of the young, or that a ‘cull’ of the elderly could be a good outcome.
These are the most extreme examples, but the association of old age with frailty and decline – and the belief that older people are a burden on society – are deeply ingrained in the language we use to talk about ageing. And perhaps just as influential as language is the imagery we see, and the ways in which older people are represented visually.
Stock image websites are filled with photos that are outdated and deeply rooted in harmful stereotypes. They range from one hackneyed extreme to another – for every glossy image of an affluent older person relaxing on a cruise ship, there’s a pair of wrinkly hands gripping a walking stick.
This phenomenon isn’t new; nor is it limited to image libraries. There’s a real shortage of realistic photographs on many websites and in magazines when older people are the focus of the story or advert. Stories that reference older people are often illustrated with images that ignore any of the person’s qualities, beyond their wrinkles.
Escaping from stereotypes
Of course, there’s nothing intrinsically negative about wrinkles or walking sticks – except for the fact that these tropes have become synonymous with older people, and serve to reinforce stereotypes. Around 3.3 million people in the UK are aged 80 and over, and it’s a hugely diverse group in terms of abilities, interests and backgrounds. The media images we see of older people simply don’t do this group justice.
Look at the photos in image libraries and ask yourself: how accurately do they represent you, or the older people you live with, work with, or meet in your community? As normal as it is for people aged 65 and over to be active in their communities – whether through voluntary activity or employment – image libraries seem disinterested in depicting these activities.
Instead, they seem set on portraying residents of care homes, when in fact, more than 90% of people aged 65 and over live in mainstream housing. Or alternatively, they often seem to think that an older person is only worth photographing if they’ve been skydiving or run a marathon – undoubtedly a wonderful achievement, but perhaps not one that sets a realistic expectation of what healthy ageing looks like.
When we search for age-related images, we shouldn’t be served up a collection of lazy stereotypes. We should be able to find a range of visuals that realistically and positively represent the diversity of people in later life – not as a group of people that are defined by their age and by society’s outdated attitudes.
Changing the story
So we at the Centre for Ageing Better decided to do something about this. We’ve launched a free image library that contains over 400 photos of people aged 50 and over in a range of settings, showcasing the vibrancy and diversity of later life. We’ve also put together a simple guide that lays out some basic tips to consider when commissioning work or capturing photographs.
The launch of this new resource follows Ageing Better’s research work on ageism, including a recent report, ‘An old age problem?’, which looked at depictions of later life across society. The report recommends that, both in words and pictures, the media and charities should communicate a more diverse representation of what it means to be older, and move away from damaging stereotypes.
With many of us set to live for many years longer than previous generations, it’s time we tackled our negative view of ageing. Simple steps – like thinking more carefully about the images we use – will play a huge part in this shift.