Editorial – Creating our future

Creating our future and escaping societal stereotypes

Hello and welcome to Issue Eleven of the Ageing Industry Network Newsletter.

Maggie Kuhn summarises a number of myths and stereotypes about ageing and older adults:

  1. That it’s a disease, a disaster
  2. That we are mindless
  3. That we are sexless
  4. That we are useless
  5. That we are powerless
  6. That we are all alike.

Despite the fact that most of us know that these are untrue, ageism is still one of the most commonly experienced forms of prejudice and discrimination and unlike sexism and racism, is largely tolerated. And, there are an alarming number of societal assumptions and stereotypes around ageing and later life that continue to proliferate. We assume for example, that once people retire, they just switch off and potter about. In fact, the majority of retirees who I’ve spoken to recently say that they are busier than ever before and involved in a diverse array of activities including: family, volunteering, common interest groups, community, travel and educational. And these are included in the key components of what it means to live and age well - staying actively engaged, connecting with people and the broader world, having a sense of purpose and meaning in life and living in the moment (Dodd et al 2018).

We internalise myths about ageing at a young age then proceed to both live them out and impose them on others thus limiting everyone’s options and opportunities. Experience tells me that wellbeing has more to do with state of mind than biomedical health (absence of disease or illness). An old friend in her late 80s has a number of comorbidities and low mobility but that doesn’t stop her from being curious, interested, engaged and very socially active. She visits art galleries with a friend weekly, dines out regularly, reads widely, continues to work, albeit to a lesser degree than in earlier years, and retains her romantic aspirations. On the flip side, an acquaintance in her mid 60s seems to have decided on a narrative of decline that includes a list of possible and potential medical conditions which she uses to rationalise her low level of social engagement.

Another assumption widely held is that older people wish to dwell in the past, as though the best part of their lives is over, yet retirement is an opportunity to explore new worlds, meet new people and develop new skills. An interesting two-year action research project involving six museums in the UK called ‘Encountering the Unexpected’, challenged museums to change the way they think about and work with older people. The idea was to facilitate the connection of older people with the natural world. Unusually the focus was on engaging older people in the present and encouraging them to think about the future through their connection to the environment. Despite being one of the cohorts that engage least with the outdoors, evidence from the project showed that older people have a rich, complex and varied experience of, and relationship with, nature. “Nature was enriching – ‘the mystery of it all, you just can’t explain, it’s so intricate (Sheila) – and could be comforting or soothing – ‘I always think of it as being very peaceful and comforting (Carole). Nature could be ‘amazing’ (Elsie) but it could also be ‘familiar and simple’ (Patricia and Teresa). Nature is all around us and creates ‘a sense of belonging’ (Sue)” Dodd et al 2018.

Humans have a natural connection with the natural world. Contact with nature has a multitude of benefits that include: enhanced healing and wellbeing; improved productivity; improved concentration and memory; sense of connectedness; reduced mental fatigue, blood pressure and anxiety; and increased vitality, happiness and life satisfaction. (See Edward O. Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis for more information).

So perhaps it’s time to re-examine our internal narratives about later life and open up new possibilities and new worlds for ourselves and those around us. As John Schaar says, ‘The future is not some place we are going to, but one we are creating.’

Dodd, J., Jones, C., Plumb, S., McGhie, H., & Blazejewski, L. (2018). Unexpected Encounters: How museums nurture living and ageing well.

Many thanks to all of our contributors to this issue, and if you have any items to for the next issue, coming out in December 2018, please send them through. This newsletter will henceforward be bi-annual.

Master of Ageing subjects due to run in Term 4 beginning on the 8th October are:

  • Economics of Ageing https://handbook.unimelb.edu.au/2018/subjects/poph90258
  • Mental Health and Ageing https://handbook.unimelb.edu.au/subjects/psyt90092/
  • Technology and Ageing https://handbook.unimelb.edu.au/2018/subjects/poph90263

And for those who’d like to find out more about ageing but are time poor, we run a MOOC ‘Rethinking Ageing, are we prepared to live longer?’ https://www.coursera.org/learn/ageing

And if you are interested in age-friendly cities, I will be presenting as part of the ‘New Agency: Owning Your Future’ event at RMIT on the 7th September. Details here: https://www.eventbrite.com.au/e/lena-gan-what-is-an-age-friendly-city-new-agency-owning-your-future-tickets-49324766705

[Source: Lena Gan, Course Coordinator Master of Ageing, Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, The University of Melbourne]