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This blog is open to members of the SOPA Committee and others and offers an open space for personal perspectives on topical issues to stimulate debate. The views expressed are independent of SOPA and are not endorsed by SOPA. See Chair Tom Berney's column in Newsletters and the Annual Report for official SOPA policy statements.


 

SOPA - Bridging the Gap

by Unknown - 22:36 on 09 November 2015

  A great strapline should state exactly what your brand stands for. I have always felt ambiguous about SOPA’s strapline - ‘A voice for older people’. On the one hand it plays into the hands of statisticians and policymakers with the need to define “older” in terms of chronological age (commonly over 50 or over 65) and, on the other, there is the media who use the term as synonymous with physical and mental decline. You only have to look at the stock images newspaper editors select to illustrate articles relating to older people to realise that most press representations stigmatise old age. (Picture: Val with a young Russian professor of educational research - Elena Kuznetcova- in Glasgow last month to discover more from Val and her colleagues at Strathclyde University about learning in later life.)

A recent exception to this was MSP Alex Neil speaking out in an article in ‘The National’ about the potential value of an older population. A strong well-lit portrait of this healthy active 64 year old politician headed up the page - no hint that he was anything other than in full vigour! However, contrast this with the Holyrood Magazine article by Tom Berney entitled ‘Listen to our older citizens’ in which a stock picture of a weary elderly woman propping up her head was used as illustration. I was so incensed that I created a new version for the SOPA website with Tom’s picture heading it up. You can bet that most  press illustrations accompanying articles on later life convey declining physical strength and frailty. This is a grotesque distortion of reality.

Therefore, although SOPA attempts to create a coherent voice for older people in public debate and policymaking, there is an inherent tension between older people as a separate group and older people as equal citizens. Some people argue that the diversity of life experiences makes older people different from the rest of the population. At the same time, older people share key hopes and desires with everyone else, namely a congenial and safe place to call home, warm human interactions in their lives, and interesting things to fill their days.

The idea of creating a separate voice for older people implies that age binds people together through common interests and problems.  In fact, the only aspects which distinguish older people are that they are more likely to experience ill health and less likely to be looking for a paid job. For more people, this is happening in general later than in their parents’ time as life expectancy extends and the age of retirement has ceased to be fixed at 60 or 65.  Indeed, older entrepreneurs and part-time workers are a growing phenomenon.  Therefore, the distinctive needs of “older people” really are issues of employment policy and of disability.  

Disabilities often include hearing loss, for instance. While sight can be corrected successfully with glasses for the majority, improving hearing where there is nerve loss, is proving to be a much harder nut to crack. This particular sensory loss can have a profound effect on a person’s confidence in the public domain where loop systems and sympathetic environments are far from universal, and no-one wants deafness to be construed as loss of ability to think and reason. With no operation for hearing loss in older age similar to hip or knee replacements, a deaf-friendly environment is something for older people to strive for as deafness is likely to afflict more and more of us as we live longer. Thus, addressing mild and progressive disabilities in later life is vital if older people are to continue to engage in public life.

The second issue is to reduce age discrimination, which although illegal, is common. Does the idea of creating a “voice” for older people lead to an increased risk of intergenerational tension – strengthening the false arguments that the old are disadvantaging the young by swallowing up scarce resources? Strengthening intergenerational solidarity is the way forward with schemes that bring old and young together in the workplace, community and family to their mutual advantage. So what would be a better strapline?  Perhaps it might be ‘Bridging the gap” which suggests making our extra years of life fuller and richer, and also hints at narrowing the gap between generations.


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