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Can We Laugh at Old People? Old Age? How About Ageism Itself?

31/08/2014 13:44 BST | Updated 30/10/2014 09:59 GMT

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"We're laughing at an ageist." Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

As widely publicised, Jeremy Paxman has got himself into trouble lately. During a practice run for his Edinburgh comic stand-up routine ('Paxo'), he recommended Dignitas clinics masquerading as tea shops into which we could lead the unsuspecting old people who, according to him, overrun us and misunderstand that the state owes them. A modern-day Sweeney Todd regime.

Genocide jokes against any recognised demographic slice aren't funny. But while old people humour may be off-limits, old age comedy is possibly a different matter.

We all know why Paxo did it. His hammed-up prejudice was rooted in fear: he confessed that according to prevailing pension rights definitions, he's about to become an 'old man' himself. Why is this scary? Because, he said, the number of older people is growing. In the UK in 2013, more than 10 million were over 65; by 2050, the predicted figure is 19 million. As long ago as 1989, the International Labour Organisation pointed out that in most developed countries there had been a dramatic vertical growth in families at the expense of horizontal shrinkage. The four-generation family had arrived, with an 85-year-old likely to be cared for by a 60-year-old child, who might in turn be supporting a 40-year-old child and that child's teenage offspring: this due to the population's overall decreased fertility and increased longevity. The ILO described the trend as a shift in demographic shape from a pyramid to a pillar.

But why do sheer numbers scare us so?

The first issue lies around consumption: 'They're sucking us dry.' We resist the notion that the elderly are consuming huge quantities of scarce resources. The UK's Department for Work and Pensions stated in 2013 that 65% of its spending was on those over working age; the UK's Department of Public Health estimated in 2013 that someone over 85 was about three times more expensive to care for than someone between 65 and 75.

The second issue is about succession: 'They're stamping us down.' Many believe that older people should sacrifice the jobs and social positions they hold, especially if they're attractive ones, to allow younger hopefuls their 'turn': the underlying assumption being that this is an inter-generational competition.

The third issue revolves around older people's image and identity: 'They're imitating us better than we do.' Older people are healthier longer these days, and are also reaping the benefit of treatments, cosmetics and fashions to make themselves look younger. Yet there's an underlying expectation that the elderly should not appear, or act, younger (again, surely through fear of competition - as well as a kind of outrage that our 'elders and betters' are breaking societal rules.)(http://www.academia.edu/2554283/Act_Your_Old_Age_Prescriptive_Ageist_Biases_over_Succession_Consumption_and_Identity)

I'd add a fourth issue, aesthetic squeamishness: 'They're making the place ugly.' In this age of image-hyperconsciousness, we're simultaneously, self-contradictorily, repulsed by appearance stereotypes of the old: wrinkling, shrinkage, incontinence, bandages and tubing, weakening, encroaching stupidity, dribbling and bad dentistry. Scary, then, that the statistics tell us that we should expect to see much more of it.

The result is that these days, older people aren't just objects of fear: they're also useful scapegoats for collective social problems - as Paxo painted them, to his cost. Jean Carette, ex-Professor at the University of Quebec, Montreal, explains that as the Baby Boomers become the Grandparent Boomers, society assumes them 'to have all the privileges and to have monopolized the advantages of their generation, leaving [us] strangled by the debt, collapsing under the load of elders and condemned to the decline.'

'Ageism: Concepts and Theories' in the Law Commission of Ontario paper (http://www.lco-cdo.org/en/older-adults-lco-funded-papers-charmaine-spencer-sectionII) that quotes Carette reminds me that we've inherited from the ancient Greeks two models of the older person: not just the geronte, 'the ridiculous old person with cognitive and other declines' but also the presbyte - 'the wise old person rich in experience and wisdom'. Shame on us in the west that we can't even respect the presbyte model in our old age nomenclature: that we call old people 'the elderly' and 'the aged', with their connotations of mental and physical frailty, or the patronising 'our seniors', 'your loved one' - and, to their faces, 'ladies' or 'gentlemen' - when a simple 'you' might be their preference. Equally though, we have to beware of applying the politically correct successful ageing model to everyone, a beatific ideal which denies the realities of sickness and dependency for many older people.

Old age should be the bogeyman, not the old. And if you fear something, it's often good to defy it, and one way of defying it is to be funny about it. In the 1990s, the popularity of so-called laughter yoga clubs started with groups of older people in parks. (Supposedly, simulating jolliness can fool the brain into releasing feel-good endorphins - and boosting physiological immunity, too.) So older people making Youtube videos of themselves doing lipsynch montages or the Harlem shake are fine with me (http://www.care2.com/greenliving/4-fabulous-examples-of-elders-defying-ageism-video.html). Ditto humorous greetings cards that they may choose to send to each other: 'Your secrets are safe with your friends because they can't remember them either,' 'You know you're getting older when your back goes out more than you do.' Still, it would be nice if there were more cards of positive old age comedy: 'Girlfriend - when we're older we're going to be SOBs - Spectacular Older Babes.' 'A reporter was interviewing a man on his 100th birthday. "Have you lived here all your life?" "Not yet!"'

(By the way, I'm well aware that I keep dubbing older people 'them'. At age 59, apologies for my wholly unjustified 'them-ism'.)

So let's direct some humour at the ageists themselves. I ransacked the net but couldn't find a single joke at their expense, so here's a tentative try.

Aestheticism: Get anyone to jump out of the raft who doesn't look pretty.

Asceticism: Get anyone to jump out of the raft who's using up too many rations.

Unwilling admiration: Get anyone to jump out of the raft who's prettier than you, or more energetic.

Anti-athleticism: Get anyone to jump out of the raft who can row.

Ageism: Everyone in the above categories older than you, get them to jump (if they can still hear, use their limbs and follow simple instructions).

Well, I said that it was only a try.

(Anti-ageism: Get Paxo to swim for it too. Is that a fair definition? You decide.)