Eleanor Bodger, Director and Founder of Eldernet and Care Publications was appointed a Companion of the Queen’s Service Order in the 2019 New Year Honours List for her services to seniors and her community.
After working as a nurse, a social worker, a community development worker, and working in the public health system Eleanor saw the need for one place that older people could go to find information about the services they needed. This led to the creation of Eldernet in 1997.
Eleanor’s vision was, and still is, to ensure that older people can have access to the best information available to allow them to make good choices for their future. Eldernet was born out of a frustration with the way information was hard to access and restricted by gatekeepers.
In 2017, Eldernet celebrated its 20th year of innovating in this ever-changing sector all while working towards its mission to “liberate us all from ageism.”
Health Central: What does ageism look like in modern day New Zealand?
Eleanor Bodger: This is written with the assumption that readers agree that ageism is plainly unacceptable. We won’t want to be the recipients of such attitudes ourselves.
Ageism, being based on the number of years one has lived, suddenly appears as an issue in New Zealand at 65. While there is a historical basis to this (retirement age, health sector definitions etc.) being over 65 automatically seems to send a signal to people that they can think about you in a different way to almost anyone else. They can lump a 65-year-old in with the 90-year-old cohort without giving it a second thought, but they would never think of lumping a five-year-old in with a 30-year-old cohort. The ironic thing is, it’s discrimination against our future selves (if we live long enough). Ageism allows people to think in a non-critical way about how their words and deeds could affect others.
Ageism is particularly apparent and pervasive in the language we use in western society and it seems to be one of the remaining ‘isms’ people don’t feel embarrassed to express in public. It’s everywhere. We even hear people of quite advanced age speak disparaging of other ‘old people’. How often have you heard ‘She looks good – for her age’? What’s wrong with ‘She looks good’? We see it particularly in advertising where we’re told how to ‘erase our wrinkles and lines’ so we can look ‘younger’ and ‘defy age’, or are encouraged to participate in some activity or another so that it will keep us ‘young at heart’ etc. How did we get to the point where evidence of a long life becomes undesirable? It should be celebrated.
We still see ‘deficit’ based stereotypes of older people e.g. they are slow, have poor memories, are set in their ways. Assumptions and generalisations about what people want or don’t want, can and cannot do, are or are not, like or don’t like etc. just because of their age, is ageist.
Many older people feel that they are invisible and certainly there are plenty of examples where this is evidenced. They are often overlooked in public meeting, are often pushed past in queues, denied promotion or ignored in discussions.
In some workplaces there is outright prejudice towards older people who are not even considered for positions. In others there is a perception that older people are fine for positions that require ‘soft skills’ but they are often overlooked, solely because of their age, when it comes to the ‘edgier’ roles. There is often the ‘guilt trip’ (yet within the law) type of pressure too, on those approaching retirement age to ‘give a younger person a chance’.
Particularly damaging is the notion that more mature people need others to make decisions on their behalf. So, a younger perspective becomes ‘better’ than an older perspective. We still see this with people telling their elders how to spend their money, advising them to move into a smaller home or retirement village etc. The impact of this on the older person’s sense of worth can only be imagined.
Sadly, all too often, we hear of family members thinking they have an entitlement to the older person’s resources, under the assumption that they will inherit these things in the future anyway. They can strip their elders bank accounts, take over their homes, abuse their loving relationships, exhaust their goodwill and generally behave in ways that they never would with their own cohort. While this behaviour is abusive it’s also ageist.
Ageism is also seen in a way in which the built environment and lack of appropriate services can prevent older peoples’ participation. Participation is what helps keep people vital and engaged in living and in their communities. Many years ago, subdivisions were built without amenities for young families. It quickly became apparent that these were needed. Footpaths and parks, and sometimes supermarkets etc. are now provided in new subdivisions. How much attention is being paid to the obstacles confronting older people (e.g. lack of suitable transport, difficulty navigating or accessing public spaces, limited social opportunities), many of whom become socially isolated as a consequence?
Not factoring in the unpaid contribution older people make to the economy and the wellbeing of society contributes to ageism as it places no value on what is being done e.g. the huge number of voluntary hours both formally and informally often prevent simmering social issues becoming social problems.
Health Central: How do we fight it?
- Choose our words more carefully. Language shapes our thinking. We need to find alternative words and phrases that better express the older persons experience rather than trying to identify with another life-stage. Being ‘young’ or ‘wrinkle free’ doesn’t equate to happiness, enjoyment of life or even the ability to have a satisfying relationship etc. Being older has lots of benefits and often brings with it: more equanimity, less willingness to ‘sweat the small stuff’, increased level of life satisfaction, broader and different perspectives on life etc. So; other positive words such as ‘vital’, ‘adult’, ‘bright’, ‘enthusiastic’, ‘interested/interesting’, ‘skilled’, ‘knowledgeable’, ‘trendy’ etc. need to pepper our lexicon.
At Eldernet we have found it useful to ‘reframe’ our words and concepts as it encourages us to think differently about things. An example of this is using the term ‘pro-bono work’ instead of ‘volunteering’. Pro-bono work is that which is done for free for the good of the community.
- Listen, learn and educate. In order to learn we first need to listen to the experts themselves. If we want to know what older people want; ask them.
We need to help break down stereotypes. Let’s talk in different ways about the range of things that many older people are doing, not just the outstanding things that we all marvel at, but the ordinary things such as: celebrating the fact that someone is a good friend (every good friend prevents someone else from slipping into loneliness) or recognising the contribution made to several generations when someone is child minding while the parent studies.
We also need to educate people as to what appropriate expectations of older people are (e.g. they are not tireless machines; just because they raised the little grandchildren it doesn’t mean they can now manage teenagers) and that older people have a right to their own funds and resources (e.g. National Super is provided to meet BASIC needs) etc.
- We need to adopt a ‘strengths’ based (rather than a deficit based) mindset. When we interact with any other sector of the community, we build on what they do well rather than focusing on what they don’t/can’t. We are also dealing with psyche/soul of the person and this needs to be protected.
- Researchers and scientists provide a huge amount of information that needs to be made more public e.g. do people know about the massive buying power of the ‘Silver economy’ or that “HEALTHY older men and women can generate just as many new brain cells as younger people.” or that fewer older people are home owners and that there are likely societal implications for this change?
We also need to consistently feed information into the media about why having older employees is a good thing (which also helps break down stereotypes).
- Lobby for good infrastructure and building design. Being able to participate in society is crucial for older people. This makes issues such as the appropriate design of the ‘built environment’ so important. In this context what’s good for older people is generally good for everyone.
While accessibility requirements are similar for many people, other factors such as lack of transport impacts on significant numbers of older people. For transport to be truly useful it needs to be immediately available, accessible and cheap. It may be that a big fleet of small, on call, autonomous vehicles will be the best solution!
- Support business that are non-ageist. They can demonstrate their non-ageist approach in a number of ways e.g. products designed with ALL users in mind. A number of businesses are now actively marketing to them.
- We need to be clear about our own agendas. Generally, we don’t presume to tell others how to live their lives but sometimes seem to fall into that trap with older people. Let’s not confuse our concern for their wellbeing by advising then to make decisions which ease our worries at the expense of their own wishes.
If we are in a position of power such as holding Enduring Power of Attorney for someone then we need to be aware of this, recognising the privilege it is and being mindful of the responsibility we have. All decisions need to be made in the best interest of the older person, being those that we believe they would have made for themselves, had they been able.
- Speak up. If you see something happening that’s devaluing of a person because of their age; speak up. Similarly, if someone says something that is ageist; challenge it. It’s a strategy that’s worked for other ‘isms’. (We’re all going to make mistakes along the way as I may have here, but let’s get on with it.)
- Utilise the skills and abilities of older people. Let’s not be afraid to engage more with families, friends and neighbours, e.g. ask for advice if you know the person has the skills, perhaps ask the neighbour to feed the cat while you’re on holiday, or help the children by listening to them reading. While we need to take care not to abuse each other’s goodwill, these types of acts can build relationships and create the environment for more reciprocal arrangements in the future.
- Start measuring the things that aren’t measured and yet contribute to people living better lives, building community and enhancing social wellbeing. Put a value on what people do in the unpaid sector. “What we decide to measure now is what we will prioritise in the future.” Marilyn Waring
- Change the rules/law if necessary. Rule/law change influences behaviour.
Health Central: Do you think we are making progress as a society against ageism?
Eleanor Bodger: We have absolutely made progress in this area; the most noticeable being the almost complete disappearance of soul-destroying terms such as ‘the ageing/grey tsunami’ and the ‘burden of aged care’.
There seems to me to be a less blaming attitude and better understanding of the factors which led to this ageing demographic and that some increased health related costs are inevitable. We can’t be too complacent however as this attitude could be tested/strained in the future as the numbers of older people increase and/or other pressures develop.
Older people have increasing employment and hence economic choices. Changes to legislation in the late 1990s meant that employees now can’t be asked to retire (with few exceptions) so that now approximately 25% of those over 65 remain in the workforce in comparison to approximately 5-10% (gender difference) at the time of the change. While we know that some must keep working because of financial circumstances many do so, because they want to.
Smart businesses and marketers are seeing the economic potential in the older demographic. They are suddenly a group worth selling to. Advertising now shows older people using a range of products and services. Apart from the obvious financial drivers, such advertising makes the invisible, visible. the recreational/travel sector and retirement village operators are obvious leaders but so are others such as fashion label Karen Walker. New products that help keep people engaged in community life such as e-bikes have a potentially huge market.
Progress is being made in the built environment. Tauranga and Hamilton have Age Friendly City status (with other cities underway with the process) and accessible and appropriate house design is promoted by projects such as Lifemark. The Good Homes initiative is designed to empower people with their housing decisions so they can have safe, healthy and affordable homes.
Attitudes are continuing to change too e.g. in some circles people know if they made statements about ‘putting someone into care’, they might be challenged or looked at in a disapproving way.
It’s not so ‘cool’ now to make fun at the older person’s expense (unless they’re making fun of themselves; which is a real signpost on the way to anti-ageism).
I do think that things are moving in the right direction however two issues take priority in my mind.
- Government intervention is needed to enable peoples’ unpaid contribution to be measured (and therefore valued) and
- obstacles to participation e.g. transport woes, need to be addressed, with technological advances likely to form a significant part of the solution.