Battling stereotypes against older people

 Battling stereotypes against older people

The World Health Organization (WHO) has established 22 indicators to measure active ageing. They include physical exercise and social relations, but also political and social participation. A demonstration by members of the "Pensionistas en Acción" (Pensioners in Action) association, in Malaga (March 2019).

(María José Carmona)

They are here every Monday. Same time, same place. Come rain or shine, there is no stopping them. Some arrive with a walking stick, others come by bike. And what looks, at first glance, like any ordinary gathering of friends soon starts to resemble a resistance movement. They unfold their banners, prepare their chants and openly challenge anyone who gets in their way. They are rebels, protestors, with the freedom acquired by those who have lived long enough and been through enough to speak their minds.

There is no fight as committed as that being waged by older people in Spain right now. For the last year, they have been gathering every week, in major cities across the country, to press for decent state pensions. “No matter who rules us, our pensions must be defended,” they shout, fists raised, to the younger passers-by looking on, transfixed.

Very few feel drawn to the cause. “We would love to see a mass demonstration like that staged on 8 March – International Women’s Day – here every Monday,” says Pilar Mendoza, president of the Malaga branch of Pensioners in Action, with a sigh. But, unfortunately, such support is rare.

As the Gerontological Society of America warned in 2017, the major social revolutions of the last century – movements defending the rights of Black people, LGBTI people, women – have overlooked older people. They have been left behind in the global fight to defend the most stigmatised groups.

Worse still. In recent years – and even more so during the economic crisis – they have been singled out as being responsible for a terrible prophecy – that of population ageing – which threatens to bleed our economic resources and health systems dry. The miracle of longevity turned into a time bomb. That is why, instead of protecting them, we have demonised them.

“We are seen as no more than an item of expenditure, and it is not so. Older people contribute much more,” says Paca Tricio, president of Spain’s Democratic Union of Pensioners and Senior Citizens (UDP). “The problem is that we have become invisible, no one sees us.” So blind has the world become that it cannot see a group comprising 962 million people.

The age-stereotype paradox

Older people are living longer and better than ever. It is a fact. Global life expectancy increased by 5.5 years between 2000 and 2016. For countries such as Japan, Singapore, Spain, and Switzerland, life expectancy is forecast to exceed 85 years in 2040. And a large majority will reach that age in good health. Old age is not what it used to be and yet, as the Gerontological Society of America points out, we continue to be trapped in the “age-stereotype paradox”. No matter how much old age changes, society continues to attach the same-old stereotypes to it as ever: illness, boredom, loneliness and degeneration.

“Older people used to symbolise knowledge, wisdom and experience, and they were respected for that. But now, in this profoundly changing and ephemeral world, we see no value in their contribution, they are no longer seen as mentors,” says Alejandro de Haro, author of the book Etnografía de la vejez (Ethnography of Old Age).

According to the anthropologist, this trend is most visible in Western and individualist societies, although the dictatorship of the new – of the young – is becoming increasingly global. “In our post-modern world, older people represent two unspeakable forces: old age and death. That is why they face so much rejection and discrimination,” he adds.

It is an insidious form of discrimination, in that it only becomes visible as and when it is suffered. Older people not only have more difficulty when it comes to finding work – a more widely-known fact – but also when trying to access training at work, innovative medical treatment, taking out car insurance or a loan, or applying for a credit card.

After reaching a certain age, they are excluded from polling station duties, jury service, clinical trials. Some even have difficulty voting, such as people in residential care.

“If such discrimination were based on sex, gender or race, we would find it unacceptable, so why is it tolerated when it is age-based?” asked the global campaign against ageism. The concept of ageism was established in 1969 by gerontologist Robert Butler, to define attitudes leading to the kind of alienation produced by racism or sexism. The difference being that ageism is the only form of discrimination we are all exposed to, without exception.

Activist ageing

“Our demands are not reflected in political debates, our urgent needs are not covered in the media, our faces are not seen in advertising [...]. We are alive, but we do not exist, it seems,” writes Paca Tricio in her book La rebelión de los mayores (The Revolt of the Aged). It is a guide to resistance for those refusing to take on the stereotype of the ‘stay-at-home grandparent’. “I’m 72 years old and I have at least another 20 years ahead of me. I don’t intend to sit at home and do nothing,” says Paca, with determination. This is the (true) essence of active ageing.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has established 22 indicators to measure how active older people are. They include physical exercise and social relations, but also political and social participation. Until now, however, ‘activeness’ has been mistakenly associated with no more than leisure – with going to tai chi classes or on Mediterranean cruises. This is, indeed, the most profitable aspect, according to the Oxford Economic report commissioned by the European Commission, on the so-called ‘silver economy’, which was shown to be worth some €3.7 trillion a year (US$4.2 trillion), spent mainly on trips and eating out.

Whilst a life of leisure reinforces the role of older people as mere spectators, consumers or tourists, active – and activist – ageing provides them with recognition as citizens able to contribute much more to society than their money, be it knowledge, experience, values or just their time.

Today, the percentage of older people in Europe taking part in voluntary activities is around 22.5 per cent for men and 20.3 per cent for women, but the figure falls to 14.2 per cent for men and 11.3 per cent for women when it comes to political participation. There are examples, such as the groups fighting for decent pensions or the yayoflautas (rebel grandparents) movement in Spain, born on the heels of the indigandos movement, but they continue to be a minority.

“We have learned that retirement is a social right won for that time in life when we enjoy a rest or leisure time. That is why when you ask about social action, the percentage is still very low,” explains Elena del Barrio, a researcher at the Matia Institute of Gerontology.

But change is on its way, according to the sociologist, especially with the new generations now approaching retirement. “We are starting to see people who are looking for more, people who want a more active role for citizens, be it in their neighbourhoods or their municipalities, and who are asking for a change of outlook on what it means to be an older person. They are, above all, crying out to be treated as equals. Not to be treated as an old person that deserves respect, but as a person like any other.”

I’m old, and so what?

Ageism works at many levels, including at micro-level. Subtle remarks are innocently slipped into conversations on a daily basis. Every time someone says, “you look younger”, it unwittingly feeds the same old message as ever: all that is “young” is good, it is what we should aspire to.

“I call it micro-ageism, because it’s the same as with micro-machismo. It is with these small, everyday actions that we impose an oppressive ideology. They are micro acts of violence with serious repercussions on a person’s health and self-esteem,” says Francisco Olavarría, director of QMayor Magazine, a Spanish-language magazine for ‘restless seniors’.

They can range from remarks that someone does not dress appropriately for their age, or is too old to be doing certain things, to talking to older people as if they were children. “It happens a lot in the health sector, where older people are infantilised and belittled. I’ve heard how they talk to my father, telling him he is ‘poorly’. That’s infantilism. What he is, is ill,” protests Olavarría.

It may seem inoffensive, but all these remarks tend to reinforce the ‘age-stereotype paradox’. Greater contact, interaction, is the best way of eradicating them, but the fact is that the different generations barely mix these days.

We live in an age-segregated society, with spaces for young people and spaces for old people. We are continually turning our backs on each other.

“Society is diverse, but it is not intergenerational. Aside from being in contact with each other, the different generations should take part in things together, and have a mutual influence on each other,” says Eleonora Barone, director of mYmO, a social innovation laboratory promoting intergenerational dialogue within society and in the workplace. “It’s not just about bringing people together for the sake of it, but bringing together people with shared aims and objectives, regardless of their age.

As sociologist Elena del Barrio argues, we need fewer “centres for old people and more community centres.”

“As I always say to young people: you’ll find yourself where we are now, one day. And if you don’t support us, you’re going to have it very tough,” says Paca Tricio.

“But things are going to change. We are on the same path as the women’s movement.” And there are already those on that path who see the fight against ageism as the new #MeToo. Perhaps the next social revolution will be that of older people. Paca counters: “It already is.”

This article has been translated from Spanish.