Of course there’s lots of good things about later life and growing older, and it’s really important to resist the common discourses of old age as decline and despair. Celebrating ageing and older people is one way of doing that and it’s an important project that I’m really pleased organisations and individuals are taking on. But I find myself a bit hesitant at writing something simply ‘celebratory’ about older people.
Some of my discomfort about ‘celebrating’ older persons is because I am not yet myself generally categorised as an ‘older person’. Of course, the beauty of the term ‘older person’ is that is is inherently relative – I am older than I was, older than a teenager, older than some of my colleagues – so in that sense everyone is an older person. But the term usually gets used in the UK to refer to people in their 60s, 70s or older. In some contexts, including in the study of non-heterosexual ageing, ‘older’ often includes people in their 50s, but I’m not quite there yet either. Because I’m not yet in that chronological age bracket, for all I recognise the social constructedness of those age categories, it feels to me as if ‘older people’ is other than me. And since I do not feel like an ‘older person’ myself yet, it feels potentially a bit patronising and otherising to ‘celebrate’ older people as a group.
Older people are hugely diverse and people’s experiences of ageing and later life vary enormously. They are far too diverse to be simply ‘celebrated’. The phenomenon of ageing also seems to me to be to be far too complex to be simply a matter of celebration. Ageing is just a thing, it’s neither bad nor good. Of course we’re not starting on a level playing field – ageing is hugely stigmatised and demonised. Therefore I do in practice spend quite a lot of my time talking up the positives of ageing and later life, in an attempt to redress the balance. But, being a contrary sort of person, I find the invitation to celebrate makes me want to note some of the reasons it’s more complex than that.
As so often when I’m thinking about age, I discover that my colleague and former PhD supervisor, Bill Bytheway, has got there before me. What follows are some extracts from the last page of his 1995 book ‘Ageism’ . He is talking about whether the best way to refute ageism is to be positive about later life. He cites the experiences so many of us have had when we say we work with older people: acquaintances say ‘that must be depressing!’ and the temptation is to reply:
Most elderly people are really nice, absolutely fascinating once you get to know them … The things they say! … Working with them is really interesting … Some of them are real characters!
Instead, Bytheway suggests we should reply:
The people I work with are pretty ordinary. They have lived long lives and survived many experiences. I like working with them because there are things I can do to make life more satisfactory for them. They tell me what they think and I listen to them and sometimes argue. You can learn a lot from ordinary people. I enjoy the work; it’s worth doing.
Bytheway, B. (1995) Ageism Open University Press, Buckingham and Philadelphia.