Emma Twyning: Charities have a major role to play in tackling ageism

The sector has a responsibility to combat perceptions of older people as lonely, frail and vulnerable

Emma Twyning
Emma Twyning

Here’s a challenge: next time you buy a birthday card for loved one who’s over the age of 40, see how many you come across that portray getting older in a sincerely positive light.

I suspect that you’ll struggle among the jokes about how devastating it is to age, how boring older people are or how the passage of time means fading mobility, forgetfulness, wrinkles and diminishing attractiveness.

Of course, it’s easy to sound overly sensitive about such things: birthday cards are meant to be cheeky and irreverent. But it can’t be denied that the way we talk about and frame ageing in everyday life feels problematic.

Inherently negative messages, tropes and metaphors about ageing seem to have seeped into every part of our lives and culture, from the anti-ageing face creams we buy to the colleague who declares they are having a "senior moment" when they make a mistake.

In public policy, it’s common to hear talk of the "burden" of our ageing population or how at risk people in later life are. The lack of positive, realistic older role models on our screens and in our newspapers and magazines exacerbates this, reducing older people to a mostly negative and patronising "doddery but dear" stereotype.

We in the charity sector don’t have a clean sheet either. VCS organisations do amazing work tackling hugely important issues such as social isolation, the social care crisis and ill-health and poverty in later life. But fundraising and campaigning imperatives can drive us to characterise people at older ages as lonely, frail and vulnerable. We can be guilty of infantilising older people and talking about them as an "other". And research shows that the fear of experiencing ageism can even be a barrier to volunteering with a charity.

Charities not only have the scope to change these destructive attitudes, but they also have a responsibility to do so, because evidence suggests negative stereotypes linked with ageing really matter. A recent study suggested a link between age discrimination and having poorer health and wellbeing in later life. It also reinforces some of the deeper, structural problems that exist around age – for example, that workplaces are less likely to hire, promote or train workers in their 50s and 60s.

At the Centre for Ageing Better, we are embarking on a project to explore how we might shift this overwhelmingly negative societal narrative, and we believe charities could have an important role to play. Much in the way that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation is looking at the language around poverty, and inspired by the work of the Frameworks Institute in the US, we want to find new ways of talking about ageing that recognise not just the challenges, but also the wealth of opportunities our longer lives offer.

As part of this, we will talk to people of all ages about how different phrases and framing around age make them think, feel and act, and will interview industry leaders from politics, the press, charities and the creative sectors about sectoral attitudes to ageing and where there might be routes to change.

As a charity that seeks to influence policy and practice, perhaps our biggest challenge will be to find a compelling way to talk about the very real issues people face in later life and the impact of population ageing that don’t feed into those traditional doom-laden narratives.

It will be fascinating to see how receptive we are as a sector to changing the way we talk about ageing. As experts and advocates, we wield power: our words inform government white papers, shape the conclusions of select committees and write tomorrow's headlines.

If we join forces, perhaps we can instigate a positive change that will be felt right across society. And if you want to help lead the charge, we’d love to hear from you. 

Emma Twyning is head of communications at the Centre for Ageing Better

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