Ageism in the media

You may have read last week of the gang jailed for locking a financial adviser in a basement after he lost their massive investments. They were aged between 61 and 80. Or the disabled pensioner who sold heroin from his sheltered housing flat. Or the 66-year-old given 20 years to pay back the £36,000 he stole in a benefits scam.

Plenty of challenges to the pipe-and-slippers stereotype of older people there, I think you’ll agree, and yet we continue to trot out the condescending cliches. Here’s last week’s motoring column: “Close your eyes for a moment and think of Volvo. What’s the first image that floats into your mind?… Can you see the driver? He’s probably a grey-haired pensioner heading to the golf club for an 11 o’clock sherry.”

And a recent restaurant review remarked on “a little old lady in a fine hat eating oysters” alongside a number of other “senior” diners. It continued: “As one of my companions put it, ‘There’s an awful lot of mail-order cashmere in this room.’ Around us sat various elders of the tribe carefully eating their way through their children’s legacy in a very agreeable manner… main courses came down to bits of impeccably cooked fresh fish on purees of things, and while it’s tempting to make some cheap gag about this suiting the dental condition of the clientele, I shall resist.”

I’m on the side of the reader who complained about this lofty disdain, saying that it’s an “all too common practice to treat the elderly as ripe for snide remarks of this kind. Should these people stay at home and eat alone so as not to offend?”

Perceptions of older people and the views older people have of themselves are directly affected by how they are depicted in the media. And we should remember that the National Readership Survey shows that 9% of Observer readers are over 65. That’s about 111,000 people – quite a big number to offend.

The Editors’ Code is silent on the subject, but the National Union of Journalists has issued useful guidelines on writing about older people, compiled with the aid of Help the Aged and Age Concern (both to be renamed Age UK next month in a telling rebranding). The guide asks: “How old is old?”, pointing out that 16- to 25-year-olds think 55 is old, while the over-75s consider 58 to be young. “The term ‘old’ is loaded with assumptions of neediness and ineptness that terrify the young and undermine the old – robbing them of self-respect, damaging their health and welfare and even reducing their life expectancy,” warns the guide.

There’s no denying that better healthcare is increasing our longevity. The number of people aged 65 and over is expected to rise by 65% in the next 25 years to more than 16.4 million in 2033.

And the youth-obsessed media should reflect that over the last 25 years, the percentage of the population aged 16 and under decreased from 21% to 19%. This trend is projected to continue. By 2033, 23% of the population will be aged 65 and over compared with 18% aged 16 or younger.

According to the Office for National Statistics, in 1983, there were just over 600,000 people in the UK aged 85 and over. Since then, the numbers have more than doubled, reaching 1.3 million in 2008. By 2033, the number of people aged 85 and over is projected to more than double again to reach 3.2 million and to account for 5% of the total population.

Our restaurant reviewer responded to the complaints about his article with the following: “I am, from time to time, rude about everyone, not least about myself: my weight, my appetites, my obsessions. The one comment about teeth from that piece strikes me as particularly soft compared to what I have said about myself elsewhere.” He felt the tone of the vast majority of the review, where the older clientele was concerned, “was hugely admiring”.

I’ll have to disagree with him on that one. When writing about older people, surely it’s important to remember that ageing is an active verb; a process, not a label.

This column was originally published in The Observer on March 28, 2010.

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