We stigmatise older people.....


By Leon A Smith
January 17, 2012
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Nightingale prides itself on its range of social activities, events, outings, educational opportunities etc and it considers itself privileged to have the input of a huge number of long standing volunteers who supplement the work of our staff. There has been for many years a regular current affairs discussion group with our residents – topics of the day are discussed and opinions expressed and sometimes matters become just a little bit heated! This week’s subject was the perennial Iran issue and the potential for things to get out of hand and to reverberate throughout the Middle East and the world. The quality of the debate was excellent and a number of our residents (average age 90) were extremely well informed of the current situation. But why should I be surprised at that? Why shouldn’t residents at Nightingale be well informed? They have television. They buy newspapers. They have access to a library, to the Internet and numerous other resources. It feels almost patronising to question the fact that an older person is well informed and able to contribute to meaningful debate. Sadly this says something about my and/or society’s prejudices towards older people. Older people are stigmatised as are so many other groups in society. Jews, Muslims, gays, Mormons, albinos – so on and so forth. Anybody who doesn’t meet society’s standards and perception of the norm risk the danger of stigmatisation. But why should that be? We don’t stigmatise children. We don’t stigmatise middle aged people. Yet we stigmatise older people. One day we are all going to be old.

For some reason somewhere along the line in the course of history we have chosen to separate out older people as an entirely separate group of people and we feel the need to label them perhaps in the same way as we label people who have ginger hair!

What is the definition of old? When do people become old? Is there a particular age when one automatically progresses from being middle aged to old age? Surely this cannot be the case because we know that many people in their 70s and 80s are leading lives which are far more creative and dynamic than some people in their 40s and 50s.

There is a hazard warning sign in the road just outside of Nightingale which is a picture of 2 people bent over, one of whom has a walking stick. Effectively this sign is saying beware older people (similar to deer on the road or low flying aircraft). I wonder what the reaction is to most motorists driving down Nightingale Lane when they see this sign. The answer of course is that they don’t see it and there’s no reaction. However, the very thought that there should be a discriminatory sign of this kind to depict older people is an anathema.

Historically, society has found the need to categorise people and indeed the concept of ageism is certainly not a new one. And I must confess that even as somebody who has been working with older people for four decades I still find myself occasionally falling into that trap. The charity which I run was once known as “The Home for Aged Jews”. One of its previous titles was “The Widow’s Home Asylum”. We are aware of course that there was a “Home for the Incurables”. There was also on part of the Nightingale site an organisation called “The Jews Deaf & Dumb School”. Fortunately today we are a little more enlightened in that most of these names no longer exist.

We are incredibly proud of our wonderful new building which was opened by His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales in July 2011 yet we are referring to it internally as a “dementia unit”. Here we are guilty of associating our own residents with that label. (Having said that I have an awareness of that problem and intend doing something about it!).

As I have said before I feel privileged to be working with a group of people – with whom I am able to have fascinating conversations and to learn about their lives on a daily basis. Yes, they are people who happen to be “mature in years” but they are people – they’re vibrant, they’re interesting. They are human beings.

Whilst ageism may still be alive and well in parts of society it is incumbent upon us all to work towards a time when it simply doesn’t exist!

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