Although there are now more people living longer, we are still a very youth-oriented society. We generally have better diet, fewer smokers, safer working conditions and improved health care. The numbers of older people - and especially healthy older people - have increased dramatically. As a group they make a major contribution to the economy: they have huge spending power and provide vast amounts of free care. This is not only childcare for grandchildren: it’s now estimated that 33% of “younger-older” carers (eg in their 50s or 60s) are actually caring for an “older-older” person (eg in their 80s or 90s). Yet the response to this has been to look at raising the retirement age – because the cost of the basic state pension is seen as a drain on resources.
It’s a familiar pattern in history: older people face attitudes based on false expectations. For one thing there is a massive assumption that the number of years you have clocked up shows that you must, by now, have limited physical and mental abilities. A phrase like “She’s good for her age” is usually meant as a compliment. But in many ways it’s a stereotype of what a “little old lady” is supposed to be like. On a personal level, it’s simply patronising. But at a social level, it belies attitudes which can deny a huge section of the community the same rights and choices as the majority. It’s often hard to realise how much this affects people's lives unless you’re on the receiving end of it.
Like most kinds of discrimination, ageism is often found in multiples:
• Sexuality: older people are perceived as simply not having sexuality or being somehow perverse if they do. For older lesbians and gay men this problem is even worse.
• Disability: there are many similarities between the position in society of disabled people and older people, but we don’t recognise older people with mobility problems as “disabled” – they’re just “old”
• Gender: the majority of the older population are women:
- After the age of 65 there are 50% more women than men
- After the age of 85 there are three times as many women as men
- Older women have fewer financial resources than older men - even more so for single older women
- Older women are less likely to drive - therefore things like problems with public transport and cuts in local Post Offices, banks and small local shops have a much greater impact on older women than any other group. There is currently no Age Discrimination Act on the statute books but ageism is just as important an Equal Opportunities issue as sexism, racism, and disability rights.
Society is slowly developing better understanding of issues such as race and sexuality, but there needs to be recognition of the way older people are undervalued. One of the other lessons of history is that the only way to challenge discrimination is to enable those discriminated against to have a voice and the authority to insist on change.
For further information about the role of the voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) sector with older people in Manchester, please contact Claire Tomkinson on 0161 834 9823 or email [email protected]
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