Punished for Your Age

28/04/2016 15:35

This month The Queen turned 90. A good age for anyone, but especially significant considering Her Majesty still maintains her role as the head of state, undertakes a huge range of public engagements, pursues her hobbies and has an active family life.

Granted, The Queen benefits from privilege and wealth, but that doesn't explain why attitudes towards her are the polar opposite of how most 90-year-olds are viewed. The Queen is respected and admired, while her contemporaries are often ignored and isolated within their communities.

This was highlighted by a recent BBC Radio 5 Live investigation into ageism that saw 33-year-old former Emmerdale actress Roxanne Pallett disguised as 90-year-old "Doris", and sent out to a shopping area in the North West of England.

Roxanne reported feeling lonely and invisible during her few hours as "Doris". She said, "I'm not going to lie, it was a pretty brutal experience. I was overlooked and I was ignored and I felt like I was punished because of my age."

The actress went on to detail the lack of help she received as a 90-year-old in comparison to the chivalry she's experienced as a younger woman, and even how one man barged into her when she was walking down the street.

Roxanne said she was shocked at how she was treated, but sadly I'm not. Talking to older people I find that Roxanne's experiences as "Doris" are commonplace, and if anything on the increase as our fellow citizens become ever more immersed in their own lives and disconnected from those around them. Being community spirited and helping each other are qualities displayed by an ever dwindling array of human beings.

If an older person is also infirm in some way, as my dad was during his latter years living with dementia when he was confined to a wheelchair, that invisibility is compounded. I can only imagine how that must feel, but as Roxanne pointed out, offering help to older people now is merely doing what all of us might hope to be the recipient of if we are fortunate enough to reach 90 and beyond in the future.

I've often wished I could make Roxanne's experiment compulsory for every motorist who gets impatient waiting for an older person to cross the road, every customer who pushes past an older person in the checkout queue, and every individual who thinks it is perfectly acceptable to single out an older person and be derogatory about them because of their age, when they wouldn't dream of doing the same to someone else who is different to them in another way.

As a mother, I am now also even more sensitive to language that describes me as my daughter's 'old lady'. Yes, I know phrases like 'old lady' and 'old man' to describe your parents have been commonplace for years, and yes, technically, your mum and dad will always be older than you are, but to me this is just ageism masquerading as cosy family banter.

How we move the agenda beyond seeing a person through the prism of their age is something that I fear will be a long hard road to tread. Older people are seen by many younger people as an unnecessary drain on public resources, while at the same time many older people who want to contribute more to society are restricted from doing so by ageist policies and practices.

That isn't a problem The Queen will ever face of course, hers is a job unlike any other. And yet within that uniqueness we can also find some important ageism busting messages that can apply to us all:

  • Prevention is better than cure. If you can remain healthy, fit and active, age really is just a number.
  • Being engaged and actively participating in the most complex decisions your circumstances can throw at you helps to keep you young - use it or lose it.
  • Surrendering autonomy isn't a mandatory part of ageing. Be your own person.
  • Believe you still have immense value and worth because you do.
  • Challenge yourself, and question the 'benefits' of an 'easy' retirement.
  • Being needed and feeling a sense of duty is worth embracing.
  • Always make the best of yourself - There is no doubt that The Queen is more elegant at 90 than Roxanne was made to appear.