Today marks the International Day of Older Persons – a worldwide day selected by the United Nations General Assembly back in December 1990. It exists to raise awareness of the needs and challenges affecting the elderly – classified by the UN as anyone age 60 and upwards. It’s a day for discussion to appreciate and facilitate the contributions that older people make to society.
Statistics show that almost 700 million worldwide are now over the age of 60. By 2050 this will have risen to two billion, meaning that over 20% of the world’s population will be 60 and over. So the resources and strategies for this growth definitely need to be reconsidered each year – from healthcare, housing and the workplace to adult education, technology and fitness. And just plain visibility. It is an important day.
I’ve written a fair amount in past musings about society’s perception of ageing and the potential slide towards invisibility as we grow older, but the demographic trend is towards an older population and it has to be addressed with international days like this because physically, psychologically and resourcefully it can still be tough. Older people can feel lonely, alienated, invisible and without help.
But the question I want to ask is when does this invisibility start to happen? When is it supposed to happen? And what exactly is that certain age we reach when we start to feel side-lined?
To read that the UN considers age 60 and over as elderly is alarming – not least because I can see that age looming all too close. I know, I know – not for a good few years yet; but as Meg Ryan’s character said in When Harry Met Sally: “It’s there. It’s just sitting there like this big dead hen.” And she was talking about hitting 40! Surely 60 is not an age when we can be considered elderly?
Partly it’s about the language we use. ‘Elderly’ doesn’t have a particularly nice ring to it. For me it conjures up the image of wispy white hair, a great big billowing cardigan with a sturdy brown handbag and a slow shuffle. I don’t see any women in their 60s who embody this image. Nor, for that matter, many in their seventies and eighties. As the Centre for Ageing Better says:
‘’We lump ‘older’ people together in a generic age bracket of 60 – 100. At first thought this seems okay, but we’re talking about a span of 40 years, during which significant changes occur. We simply don’t refer to the 0 – 40 age range in the same way … “
So the terminology we use to describe growing older has to change. And it is beginning to. Words like anti-ageing are no longer acceptable because we aren’t anti the ageing process at all. In the beauty industry particularly we are beginning to see terms like pro-age and age-positive to describe the products out there. They mean simply that they are products for the skin as it begins to age, but they don’t denigrate the ageing process.
We do still have to contend with society’s and the media’s perception of age, and invisibility is an issue. My girls can roll their eyes with scorn even now when I make comment I’m delighted with but that they think crept out of the mouth of a great grandmother. Even trying to flag a London cab among hordes of savvy young city workers can make me feel invisible.
But it is true. As we grow older we can become overlooked in the workplace. There is still a notion that we have to adopt some sort of middle-age uniform that is age appropriate. The inclination to turn to our children for help when new technology completely floors us is an all too easy option. To an extent we do live in a youth-fixated culture that places more value on the young. But these are things that we can change if we choose to.
The world does move on and progression never stops so we need to use every ounce of energy we have to move along with it. I am going to keep wearing exactly what I want until it wears out and then I’m going to buy more. I’m going to keep working as long as I can and as long as my body allows. I’m going to keep up with technology, keep dancing and enjoy the company of those younger than me. And I’m going to support the International Day of Older persons and do everything I can to make sure that we stay visible as we grow older and that the resources are in place to allow that.