How do we think about getting older? Many of us are living extremely active lives, well into our 90s. Often, the way we live is dictated by a particular mindset. Isn’t it time we ditched the stereotypes and embraced a new vision of ageing?
WORDS: TOM BAILEY
FEB/MAR 2023 ISSUE
When Coronation Street first appeared on TV in 1960, a trio of characters were introduced: Ena Sharples, Minnie Caldwell and Martha Longhurst. These three old women sat in the Rover’s Return, nursed their milk stouts and gossiped about the scurrilous goings-on in Weatherfield. Ena, always seen wearing her hairnet and overcoat, sat in the middle, a disapproving scowl on her scrunched-up face: the “battle-axe”. Ena, Minnie and Martha represented old people in the soap: they were much-loved stereotypes.
Over on BBC1, the hapless, dim-witted old codgers of the Home Guard defended Britain’s borders against the Nazi horde in Dad’s Army. Pompous Captain Mainwairing and feckless Corporal Jones represented the older generation of men who clung on to relevance and heroism, despite their obvious flaws. Coming a bit more up to date, there’s another TV stereotype: the Grumpy Old Man. Victor Meldrew spent his days frowning at a world gone mad. Who hasn’t opened the newspaper and said in exasperation, “I don’t believe it!” Many of us enjoyed these comedy characters over the years. But they do represent a vision of older people that isn’t necessarily helpful – or true. In real life Lynne Carol (who played Martha Longhurst) was in her 40s, as was Clive Dunn (Corporal Jones). And Richard Wilson was only 53 when he first appeared in One Foot In the Grave!
These stereotypical versions of older people can seep into our minds. Ena, Minne and Martha were at the height of their popularity in 1963. How have our perceptions of ageing and older people changed? Writers on the Shine team got together recently to discuss these points.
“When I was a child, my grandma sat on a chair, smiled benignly at us and that was it,” says Mally Harvey. The concept of a grandparent is very different from when many of us were young. “I’ve been a very active grandma to my grandchildren,” continues Mally. “We’ve swum, we’ve camped, we’ve cycled, we’ve played every conceivable board game you can imagine. I’ve taught them to cook and I’ve been climbing.”
Mally’s experience as a grandma is vastly different to women who were grandparents in the 1950s and 1960s. A huge societal shift has taken place over the last 60 years. Older people retire later and are expected to take far more of an active part in the bringing up of grandchildren. “Our role has changed, but I think it’s been a good thing - despite the two artificial knees!” says Mally. So much has changed, but how much of that residual stereotype lingers within society and within us? What happens when we add the prefix “old” to a description of someone? When we hear about an “old lady”, what do we think? Do we imagine a fit, active woman, or do we still think of Ena Sharples in the Rovers Return, supping her stout? Do we even thnk of ourselves as “old” or “older” people? Maybe we all need to retrain our brains to have a different vision of ageing.
“Is ageing just a problem of mindset? Is it all in our heads? Can we rethink our vision of ageing?
“Age is just a number!” is a refrain you’ll often hear. For most of us, age creeps up on us without us really suspecting it. “It’s bizarre,” says Ruth Steinberg, another Shine writer. “How can I be 70? I don’t feel old.” It’s a useful experiment to ask people “How old do you feel?” You often get people in their 80s expressing that inside they feel no different to when they were 18. Researchers call this phenomenon your “subjective age”. So your “chronological age” is 76, but you may feel you are 36 – that’s your “subjective age”. A study at the University of Montpellier found that most of us feel about eight years younger that we actually are. Even more interestingly, your subjective age can determine your health and how long you live. “Studies have found, for example, that subjective age is predictive of physical activity patterns,” says Yannick Stephen, who conducted the research. Those of us who think of ourselves as younger tend to be more active; this has implications for our physical health. In other if you feel young, you live longer!
Is ageing a problem of mindset? Is it all in our heads? If we rethink our vision of ageing away from the stereotypes, can we all live longer, happier lives? Are we just supposed to “think positively”? Leeds writer Peter Spafford joined our conversation about ageing recently. “I am fairly allergic to positivity,” says Peter. “I’m not a great joiner.” Most of us were pretty allergic to positivity. Mally feels positively resentful about ageing! “I’m resentful because of the constraint ageing puts on me,” she says. “I fight it.” Mally uses this resentment to motivate her. “I haven’t got much longer so I have to make the best of it,” she says. “It makes be get up and do and be. Be as physically active as I can. I’m going to enjoy every damned day!” Perhaps Mally’s attitude is peculiarly British – even Northern? Positivity can sound an awfully American concept. Our version in the North is to embrace the negativity and use it as a motivator.
We were interested in this idea of mindset, of how thinking about ageing can help us live better lives, so we spoke to a professional. Dr Rachel Coats is a psychology lecturer at the University of Leeds. She has a particular interest in older people and what happens as we age; she runs a module called “Biopsychosocial Issues in Ageing”, which examines how physical changes, environmental changes and psychological changes relate as we get older. So is age “just a number”? “When I hear that, I feel empathy for the people who are struggling with being older,” Rachel told us. There are older people who are struggling with numerous health issues, which are beyond their control. “I don’t want them to think that’s a mindset problem.” However, Rachel agrees that there is a relationship between the way we think and staying well as we get older. “It’s way more linked than anybody currently knows,” she says. “If you’re feeling bad physically, you’re going to be feeling bad mentally.” There’s a huge crossover in mental and physical health. “Society is coming round to this,” agrees Rachel. However, more research needs to be done about how physical and mental health affect each other. Rachel’s view is that “life satisfaction is very subjective. One person’s idea of successful ageing is very different to somebody else’s.”
This idea of “successful ageing” is key. What does it mean to age “successfully”? Many researchers have studied this concept. The McArthur Model of Successful Ageing (developed by John Rowe and Robert Khan in 2015) concluded that the important things were: avoiding disease and disability; engagement with life; and high cognitive and physical function. Basically, if you stay well, get out and about and keep your brain going, you’ll grow old happy. But isn’t life more subjective than that? “If things are declining but you’re still happy, why should this not still be called Successful Ageing?” suggests Rachel. Everyone reacts differently to whatever life throws at them. Some people can deal with a cancer diagnosis with surprising sanguinity; others can stub their toe and be plunged into a miasma of existential gloom. Victor Meldrew springs to mind.
“You can be happy and physically unfit,” says Rachel. “You may not be as healthy, but you can still be happy.” The reality is that we all have to define our own version of what successful ageing means – to us. This definition changes from person to person – and in different cultures. A happy life in the UK might look very different to a happy life in India, Africa or the Caribbean. Rachel has a student who is currently looking into how life satisfaction changes across different cultures. According to her student, older Indonesian people value very different things than White British people. “A lot of the research is very Western, middle-class and white,” says Rachel. It affects what the government recommend if we’re ignoring cultural difference.
Other thinkers agree with Rachel that the way we think affects our health. Dr Becca Levy is an American professor of epidemiology and psychologist, based at Yale University. Becca has written a book about ageing called Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Ageing Determine How Long You Live. In an interview with Forbes Magazine, Becca Levy outlined her thoughts. “Older individuals who had taken in more positive age beliefs lived, on average, 7.5 years longer than their counterparts who had taken in more negative age beliefs,” says Becca. Again, how we think, or our mindset, can affect our health. The big question is: can we change our mindset? If we are the sort of person who struggles to look on the bright side, are we doomed to age “unsuccessfully”? Becca Levy has good news: “Although age beliefs are assimilated and reinforced over our lifetimes, they are also malleable. You can shift from an age-declining mindset to an age-thriving one.” So, even if you grow up with a particular view of how getting old will be cataclysmic, this can change. We can adapt our thinking to see ageing differently. Becca Levy and Rachel Coats both think we alter our mindset. “Yes, it’s something we can alter,” says Rachel. “Some people argue that it’s pretty fixed, but that doesn’t mean you can’t change your attitudes.”
“We all have to define our own version of what successful ageing means –to us."
Some of our attitudes about ageing are ingrained from childhood and can be hard to shift. Ashton Applewhite is a journalist who is particularly interested in how ageism shapes society. We spoke to Ashton a couple of years ago because her work directly influenced the drive to make Leeds a more age-friendly city. Ashton’s book, This Chair Rocks, bills itself as a “manifesto against ageism”. She believes that we all have an inbuilt fear of the ageing process. “The sooner growing older is stripped of reflexive dread, “she writes, “the better equipped we are to benefit from the countless ways in which it can enrich us.” Aren’t we all afraid of getting older and uncertain about what it might bring? Ashton disagrees: “Fear of dying is human. Fear of ageing is cultural.” She thinks we can shake off our ageist perceptions and embrace a more hopeful attitude. In Ashton’s view, this idea of “the old” and “the young” is meaningless. “We’re always older than some people and younger than others,” she writes. “Since no one on the planet is getting any younger, let’s stop using ageing as a pejorative—ageing Boomers for example - as though it were yet another bit of self-indulgence on the part of that pesky generation. Or ageing entertainers, as though their fans were cryogenically preserved.” Words matter. Our Shine writers agree. “I hate the word retirement,” says Ruth. I refuse to be retired. To me, that’s going to bed. I didn’t retire, I graduated from work and went into the next bit of my life.” Perhaps being mindful about the words we use to refer to ageing can help us change the way we think about getting older.
During the pandemic, our idea of what it is to be older shifted. Researchers at the University of Luxembourg found that we all got more ageist. “Ageism in media and society has increased sharply during the Covid-19-crisis, with expected negative consequences for the health and well-being of older adults,” the report states. They point to how the media discourse around the pandemic altered people’s thoughts about ageing. Researchers point to the “vulnerability discourse”: the idea that older people were talked about as fragile and vulnerable – and how this affected the way they thought of themselves.
Even before Covid, ageism was rife in the workplace. People can perceive older workers as slow and useless. This is untrue and a distortion of reality. Dr Becca Levy has the facts: “In reality, older workers tend to take fewer days off for sickness, have strong work ethics and are often innovative; teams that include older persons have been found to be more effective.”
So, things need to change. We need to shift society’s view of getting older. But more importantly, we need to shift our own views. Psychologist Dr Rachel Coats told us about a memory study she conducted with older people and younger students. It was a deliberately difficult task. “The students came out of it saying, oh, that task was too hard – who designed that? And the older people came out of it saying, oh, I couldn’t do it, I was really bad, it’s my fault. Completely blaming themselves.” In some cases the two groups scored the same so they are equally sharp. But the older people seem to be aware that things have changed in them and that they go in with an assumed decline. Our attitude to things change as we age. The way we think affects our ability to perform tasks. Fortunately, as Rachel says, “You can change the way you think about ageing.” But how?
Peter Spafford is making a conscious effort to think differently about ageing. “I made a resolution to myself not to one of those people who are scared of everything,” he says. “I’m going to try and not be that older person who has to have everything just right.” Ruth thinks we need to reframe everything about how we see life. “I think of life in three 30s,” she says. “Your first 30 is your becoming. You’re born, you learn. The middle 30 is you building something. And the last 30 is that you have all these riches and you can live. If you think of it as going up a hill, in your last 30 you have a view over the world which is different.”
We can’t deny that getting older means our body changes. “As we get older, we get physically less mobile and it can happen mentally too,” says Peter. “I’m going to try and be more spontaneous. Keep the body flexible but keep the mind flexible too.” Let’s not fall into the trap of assuming that ageing is all negative. “I’ve embraced the age landmarks and, in some ways, things have got better and better,” enthuses Ruth. “I now know what I want. I now don’t do the things I don’t want to do.” Peter agrees: “I’m less competitive. I say sod it, I can’t be bothered. When I was younger, I did feel the pressure to achieve. And now I don’t. I still want to do things, but I want to do them for themselves, not to look a certain way. I don’t care about that any more.”
By deliberately rethinking ageing, we can affect others too. Can we change the world? “Changing other people’s attitudes is almost impossible,” thinks Mally. “The only way for it to happen is for people of our age to continue to engage with life and show we have something to say. Small change and modelling are important. You have to show how you are, rather that tell people how you are.” Let’s tell our own story about how getting older isn’t the end of everything. Writer Richard Powers sums it up neatly: “The best arguments in the world won’t change a single person’s point of view. The only thing that can do that is a good story.” Let’s get away from seeing older people as Ena Sharples and Victor Meldrew. Let’s tell ourselves and other people stories about older people who are “ageing successfully”. Older people who are working, contributing, engaging with life and refusing to adhere to stereotypes. The more stories we tell, the more we can encourage everyone to rethink ageing together.
When Jane was in her 50s, her husband died and she was forced to re-invent herself. She’s spent the last 30 years having adventures: abseiling, parachuting and climbing trees with her grandchildren. We found Jane when she was tweeting about her adventures for the Re-engage project and spoke to her to find out more.
How do you think about getting older?
I was widowed in my 50s. It was the first time in my life that I could find out who I was and what I wanted to do. I re-invented myself. Without someone else – or society – saying, this is what you should be, or this is what you should do. I’ve been ploughing my own furrow from then on. And thoroughly enjoying it. After a Victorian father and a Catholic background. Then I was a mother. You’re always given a label – and then, suddenly, I lost those labels. It was horrible when he died. I felt transparent. I felt I wasn’t there. But I couldn’t have done all these things when my husband was alive. My daughter says, “You’re my role model.” This is the time of our lives where we can do exactly what we want. We have freedom!
I’ve been very lucky to keep my physical and mental health as I’ve got older. I walk a lot. I get involved with things. I try not to say no! And I get outside my comfort zone. Try it once – and it usually opens up new avenues and you meet new people. I was a nurse until I was 60, then retired. But I was still active. My children got me jobs when I was in my late 60s. I worked on “special needs” bus as a passenger transport assistant. I did that until I was 78. And I still work for 11 weeks of the year as a music examiner.
How much of getting older is mindset?
100%! My father had no time for sickness and he did yoga every day. His mantra was, “It’s all in the mind. Rise above it!” I do have him in my head. Sometimes I treat my mind as if I was treating a toddler having a tantrum. I’ll speak to my mind like this: “Stop it!” I have two great-grandsons who were complaining about an older person they know: “They’re boring!” I said, “I’m the same age – I’m old.” They said, “You’re not old! You play!” I’m on the trampoline, climbing trees, doing stupid things. It’s such a blessing to see the world through their eyes. My grandchildren got me on to computers and smart phones – which was very fortunate. I went to college to learn how to use it all properly.
Why is it important to keep playing?
I was never allowed to as a child. Little girls had to “conduct themselves well”. I remember climbing the school wall so I could go and play football with my brothers. The lady across the way rang my father to say, “Your daughter is showing her knickers!” Flipping heck!
What other unusual things have you done as you’ve got older?
I donated a kidney to a complete stranger when I was 79. I’d already signed my body over the Leeds Medical School when I die. But I saw this “live donor” thing on Facebook and I couldn’t believe I didn’t know about it before. All these years as a nurse! I should have done it years ago. It’s a win-win situation because they go through your body to check you’re fit enough to donate a kidney.
They look at everything to check if anything was lurking that I didn’t know about. It’s like taking your car in for a service for free! It was painless, quick and you can’t even see the scar. No ill effects at all. When I was a nurse, I saw so many people on dialysis. It’s so cruel. Most people don’t realise you only need one kidney to function. A year later I got a letter. 74-year-old gentlemen who had had kidney trouble since he was a child. He said, “I’ve got a new life.”
What does the word “resilience” mean to you?
Everything passes. So don’t get hung up about how things are at the moment. You don’t know what’s in store or why things happen. Sometimes the bad things that happen to you work out in amazing ways.
What do you think about climate change?
We’ve lived our lives looking after the planet. Recycling before it was fashion- able. Wearing clothes until they practi- cally fell apart. Hand-me-down. Saving gas and electric. Not wasting food. I cut mould off the cheese! Keep warm by staying active.
Do you inspire the younger members of your family?
When I was 80, I did a tandem parachute jump for Alzheimer’s. 15,000 feet. My great-grandchild was 8. He said, “I wouldn’t have done that. But when you’re 90, you’re doing a wing-walk – and I’ll be 18 so I’ll do it with you!” When I was 60, my son said his colleagues were all talking about what they were doing that weekend. He said, “I’m going to watch my mother throw- ing herself off an roof in Leeds!” You remember that old sitcom Waiting For God? I say, “God can’t hit a moving target!”
Thanks to everyone who spoke to us for this piece.
You can listen to the Shinecast podcast on the subject of Rethinking Ageing at www.theshinemag.com/shinecast
Are you interested in finding out more about the psychology of ageing?
There are many opportunities for older people to volunteer their time and get involved with Dr Rachel Coats’
psychology studies at the University of Leeds. Contact Rachel at firstname.lastname@example.org
Q+A JANE BULL
As we get older, we start to think differently about age. We sit down with three interesting people to pick their brains on how they view the ageing process. Can we alter our mindset and keep ourselves young? Featuring writer Peter Spafford, and Shine regulars Mally Harvey and Ruth Steinberg.