By Helen Hirsh Spence
Image: Adapted from Centre for Ageing Better
Close your eyes when you finish this next sentence; then read on. What is the first image that you conjure up when you think of someone who is elderly?
Was it the image of someone robust, energetic, and spry? Or did you envision an older person, hunched over, using a cane to cross the street?
It’s not surprising that the majority of people don’t see a joyful image of a couple dancing across the striped street crossing. That is also the conclusion of some informal research conducted by Top Sixty over a period of two years when the question posed was: What are the first three words that come to mind when you are asked to describe ‘old’. Rarely was there a positive word or phrase thrown in. Wise, healthy, experienced, or knowledgeable were rare occurrences.
Images and photos in books, in the media, on the news, in ads, or in the movies rarely portray growing old as something aspirational. Consider how few children’s books exist, especially fairy tales, that do not depict the witch as anything but old, unattractive, and frightening. Old men have a similar fate.
Data is still only collected (when at all) on groupings of those 65 and up, as if people over that certain age belonged to a homogeneous group. Truth is, they are as different between 65 -75, 75-85, 85-95, 95-105, as teenagers are to infants. And yet, they are all painted with the same brush.
As a society, we have done little to improve the word associations and images for what growing old means. There is no well-established terminology to describe the different stages of later adulthood in the same way we have different terms for children between the ages of 0-20. Medical and scientific words don’t really cut it. Nor do the typical icons, symbols, and photos of the elderly inspire positive thoughts.
To start you thinking, consider the following words and phrases. Do any of them fit accurately?
- Third age
- Second half
- Last chapter
- Encore years
- Early or late adulthood
And how do we want to be depicted in advertisements? The real issue is that there is little evidence of the fastest growing segment of the population in film or advertising. This is even more egregious. When over 75% of wealth in the US and Canada is in the hands of Boomers and other older adults, why is representation of them so conspicuously absent from websites and ads for products?
Now is the time to demand change that normalizes ageing and makes it more representative of who older persons are today, not yesteryear. Everyone has a responsibility to show up as that curious, active, older person with an expressive new vocabulary that more accurately describes the years over 65. Until we do, the words and images of ageing won’t change.