Australia is appallingly ageist, and it’s about time we changed that
“Age is just a number.” Whether it’s a throwaway line in conversation, a catchy slogan primed to catch our attention in advertising or some sort of justification in the news when someone older does something extraordinary, sayings like this crop up everywhere you turn.
Phrases such as “you look great for your age”, “you still have time” and “young at heart” are all too common. It’s unfortunate, but I believe we are appallingly ageist in Australia. And this is just where it begins.
Perhaps the most overt and explicit forms of ageism can be found in advertising in the cosmetic and beauty industry – unrelentless messages like “fight your ageing”, “hide the visible signs of ageing” and “youthful beauty”. They’re all so age-denying.
And when it comes to the news, I don’t know how many times I’ve heard things like “80-year-old grandmother wins award”. But why do we need to know they’re a grandparent in that context, when the story has nothing to do with that part of their life? The mention of their status as a grandparent is often pitched as a contrast to the older person doing something newsworthy. Why is it not simply about their accomplishment, as a human being in society?
I also remember this 86-year-old nun who did triathlons and was described as “86 years young”. But why can’t she be referred to as remarkable and 86 years old? Older people are capable of many incredible things and that’s something to be proud of.
Recently in Western Australia there was an ad that featured an image of an older woman in a nightdress, with curlers in her hair, scowling at the camera and holding a rifle. The words said: “Is your property manager a grumpy cow? Relax, nice ones do exist.” It was so overtly ageist, among other things, that it caused a real backlash from the community. And eventually, the advert was pulled.
Now that’s the way we should be responding to ageism every single day.
Because age is not “just a number”. Ageing is a privilege denied to many and there’s a lot of life experience and wisdom that builds with age. There are also physical declines that few of us embrace. Both are significant and highlight the fact that age is not just a number.
Why do we need to embrace and celebrate our ageing? So that we can get the most of out life, regardless of our individual circumstances. That’s the opportunity.
We know from the research that ageism is pervasive and that it has a negative impact on our health and our wellbeing. It erodes our sense of self – particularly because so many of us internalise those ageist messages.
Often, people can’t necessarily point the finger at what it is that makes them feel less valued or visible, but they know it has a lingering impact.
That’s why it’s so damaging – because much of it is almost invisible. It’s nebulous. There are very few people who really see it and can articulate it. It subconsciously becomes a part of our culture and unknowingly shapes how we view the world and interact with it.
But once you point it out, often people go, “Oh my goodness. Yeah, absolutely.” Or, alternatively, it’s just so common that many people think there’s nothing even wrong with it – which makes it difficult to change.
However indescript, these messages suggest that growing older means we are of less value, perpetuate a cycle of lack of respect for the ageing process and our oldest members of society. In an ideal world, we would value our own ageing. And when we value our own ageing, then we look to older people with respect. That’s the revolution.
In an ideal world, we would value our own ageing. And when we value our own ageing, then we look to older people with respect. That’s the revolution.
Part of it is about each and every one of us, whatever our age, saying: “What is it that we value about our own ageing?”
As a 57-year-old woman now, I’ve got to tell you that I love myself in ways that I didn’t when I did, say, at 27. I’m much more confident and have a much stronger sense of myself now that I’m older, and I’m living my life in much more authentic ways than I was when I was 27.
So just imagine the inner knowing and wisdom that comes with turning 70, 80, or 90. That’s really something. It’s to be admired and celebrated, not downplayed or passed off as “just a number”. We don’t appreciate the privilege of ageing or the value of older people enough in our society.
For me, it was only once I embarked on my work around ageism and the Celebrate Ageing program that I started to notice all the subtle nuances out there that constantly whisper, or else scream, “ageing is not okay”.
I do believe though, broadly speaking, that ageism is more of an issue in modern-day Australia than some other cultures around the world. For example, in parts of Europe, they hold a lot of respect for their elders, and the knowledge and wisdom they have to share.
And if you look to Aboriginal culture in Australia, it’s such a lovely thing to see how their elders are so revered. There are certainly some learnings to take from that.
I recently heard speakers from the YIRRAMBOI Festival talk about their Elders Comfort Lounge, where Aboriginal Elders receive free admission to festival events, are given priority seating and at the end of an event, the organisers ask other patrons to remain seated until the elders leave.
The elders are given that access and that support, so they’re not caught up in the rush of the crowd or having to queue. But more than that, it’s about saying “we respect you and so we stand aside and make way and salute you”.
It’s little things like that – everyday enactments of respect for older people – that can really set the tone for a less ageist, and more thoughtful and inclusive society.
I’ve heard a lot of people talking about this idea that ageism is really just discrimination against our future selves, and that age-related discrimination is the only form of discrimination that each and every one of us knows that we’ll face, if we are lucky enough to age. I find that really interesting.
And a lot of people are confronted by stories of residents being poorly treated in residential aged care. I think the challenge we face when hearing such stories is a sadness that older people are being mistreated – and also a sadness about the loss of hope for our own futures. It’s clear that we need to ignite a change, so that we as a society respect ageing – for others, and ourselves.
I think we’ve got to be conscious about saying, well how is it that we want it to be? How do we want our elders treated? And how are we going to make that happen? A key step towards respect for elders is valuing our own ageing and that’s the work that the Celebrate Ageing program undertakes.
Soon we will be releasing a project called the Dictionary of Ageism, which is about helping people to see ageism so that we can call it. Awareness is always the first step towards change.