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Column: Let's change the language we use about older age

A sharp contrast exists between public and private representations of ageing – and the reality of later life is often misrepresented, writes Prof Thomas Scharf.

Image: Justin Tallis/PA Wire/Press Association Images

WATCHING THE STATE visit of President Michael D Higgins to the UK this week, most of the attention has inevitably focused on the powerful symbolism of two neighbouring countries, with so much in common, charting a new set of relations. Potentially just as important are the images of the visibly warm personal bonds that exist between the two heads of state.

For those of us engaged in the field of gerontology – the scientific study of ageing and later life – this provides a further valuable opportunity to draw attention to the often contradictory ways in which older age is represented in the public domain.

The chronological age of each head of state – approaching 73 in the case of Ireland’s President, almost 87 for Queen Elizabeth – is clearly irrelevant when it comes to matters of state and the necessity of deepening the mutual bonds which exist between Ireland and the UK. But the fact that the heads of state are mature in years is important when seeking to challenge the negative perceptions of ageing that are deeply embedded within both societies.

Public and private representations of ageing

Many of us are familiar with the sharp contrast that exists between public and private representations of ageing and older people. In our personal lives, we typically express our love and support for ageing parents and grandparents in countless ways, gaining enjoyment from longer life expectancies, even where later lives are marked by the need for ongoing support and care.

In Ireland, the strong bonds between family generations have been especially evident during our difficult economic times. Family members are often helping one another not just because of a sense of obligation, but because this is what they want. Most care and support across the generations continues to be provided by close family.

In public discourse, things look different. Ageing and older people are often represented as ‘burdensome’. Even if the language of the ‘demographic time-bomb’ or the ‘ageing tsunami’ is not used, the message tends to be the same. Increasing longevity signifies much higher financial costs that current and especially future generations of younger people will struggle to meet. The terrain of potential conflict between generations is marked in some commentators’ eyes by the rapidly rising costs associated with provision of pensions, health and social care, and various community supports.

Demographic change brings new opportunities

Bridging the gap between public and private perceptions of ageing is key if Ireland and other countries are not only to respond effectively to the need to prepare for demographic change, but also to make the most of the countless opportunities that arise. This is a major task for researchers involved in issues around ageing and later life.

Gerontology, almost by definition, has to be an interdisciplinary field. It requires knowledge and insights from all areas of science. Ageing is not a disease and people don’t die of old age. Challenging and then transforming public perceptions of ageing and old age means that we should not rely solely on the work of the biomedical sciences and their necessary commitment to understanding better the mechanisms of the ageing process and developing treatments and interventions that can enhance the quality of later life. We also need help from the social sciences and from the arts and humanities.

This week, NUI Galway is hosting a major international conference where these and related questions are being addressed by more than 250 scholars drawn from over 20 different countries. The focus of the 8th International Conference on Cultural Gerontology is on the cultural representations of ageing and later life and on the meanings associated with growing older in different societies.

New insights into ageing

Delegates will struggle to find out about a ‘cure’ for Alzheimer’s Disease. But they will gain new insights into ageing and family relations by hearing about the ways in which popular novels, such as Margaret Forster’s Have the Men Had Enough, and non-mainstream film from countries as diverse as France, Turkey and South Korea portray ‘Alzheimer’s’.

Various papers will explore older persons’ interactions with new communication technologies, reaching into the realm of thinking about curating a ‘digital afterlife’ and the ownership of people’s (increasingly digitalised) memories.

Themes around ageing, sexuality, and new forms of intimate relationship will be examined in terms of potential impacts on our welfare systems. How ageing varies in different types of urban and rural location will feature alongside portrayals of old age in popular TV series.

Changing the language around ageing and old age into something that better reflects the reality of later life – as represented so admirably this week by the heads of state of Ireland and the UK – is fundamental. A society in which we all feel comfortable about our own ageing is likely to be a much better society.

Thomas Scharf is Professor of Social Gerontology and Director of the Irish Centre for Social Gerontology, NUI Galway.

NUI Galway will host the 8th International Conference on Cultural Gerontology, which is also the 2nd Conference of the European Network in Aging Studies. The conference entitled ‘Meaning and Culture(s): Exploring the Life Course’ will take place in the Arts Millennium Building at NUI Galway from the 10 – 12 April.

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Read:  Want to have your say about growing old in Ireland?

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