Not slow, frail, or dim-witted: railing against ageist stereotypes

Stop patronising older people. Lee Janogly argues that they are deserving of a lot more respect

My friend Eileen, 84, went to her doctor with a minor ailment. She happened to be accompanied by her daughter as they were going shopping afterwards. Once seated, the doctor – male – turned to her daughter and said soothingly, “So how has she been lately?” 

Eileen raised her arm and said “Hello doctor, I’m here! I’m not deaf or senile, I can answer for myself.” The doctor had the grace to look slightly abashed. 

On a recent episode of Have I Got News for You, a comedian gave his impression of an old person eating ice cream. Hunched over, he screwed up his face and mimicked licking an imaginary cornet whilst making slurping noises. This was spiteful and demeaning. I know this comedian is the father of two young children. Why is he teaching them it’s OK to represent older people this way?

While it seems we have reached a stage where everyone is offended by everything, it is correct that no-one should be mocked for the colour of their skin or their religious beliefs. However, old people are fair game for verbal abuse. Jokes about deafness, incontinence and senility are acceptable subjects for humour and no-one turns a hair. Phrases like “grumpy old sod” and “stupid old bat” are commonplace. Ageism – that is when people are defined by their age rather than their personality, individuality or beliefs – is alive and well in our society. 

What about the way older people are portrayed in films and sitcoms? They always seem to have stooped postures, wrinkles and grey or thinning hair. A grandfather is introduced descending the stairs in a stairlift clutching a walking stick; that’s that one sorted. 

We are not all sitting at home knitting covers for our hot water bottles.

These stereotypes bear no resemblance to the people I know in their 70s and 80s. That is why I have written my book, Getting Old, Deal with it. I want to dispel the notion that old people are slow, frail, dim-witted and, to use a favourite media phrase, a “burden
on society”. 

All the people I mix with ensure their days are filled with activities: they are either looking after grandchildren in the school holidays, going to the gym, doing charity work or meeting their friends for lunch and playing bridge or bingo. They are nothing like the frail pensioners depicted in the media. We are not all sitting at home knitting covers for our hot water bottles.

Let’s knock some of the more common myths on the head: For starters, the general assumption is that old people are
slow-minded. This is not so. There may be some cognitive changes as they age but this just means they may perform better in certain areas of intelligence and not so well in others. Maybe they find it difficult to add up a series of numbers in their heads, but I’m sure the younger generation with their reliance on the calculators on their phones would be exactly the same. Their grandparents adapt to the slowing of memory by making lists and altering their approach to retaining information. Certain mental capabilities that depend very much on accumulated experience and knowledge, like dealing with people in authority, clearly get better with time. 

Motoring organisations acknowledge that older people have fewer accidents than youngsters hot-rodding it along the motorways (we’ll overlook Prince Philip somersaulting his car at the age of 97!). They’re aware that their reactions may be slightly slower so they drive more cautiously and with greater care on the road. 

Another assumption is that old people are weak and fragile. Some may be, especially if they’ve suffered a fall which has knocked their confidence. But I go to a gym in North London and most of the treadmills are occupied by white-haired people striding along to pounding music. 

The popular saying “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is also a fallacy. While researching my book I spoke to many people in their 70s and 80s who were taking courses in writing, painting, architecture appreciation or learning a new language. The most popular pastime was compiling a memoir of their lives for their grandchildren, who probably couldn’t care less at this juncture – but when they become parents themselves they might be fascinated by grandma’s life story. 

Older people will admit they can be forgetful and worry when a familiar name escapes them.  They can picture the face but the name is just on the edge of their memory, and the more they strive, the more elusive it becomes. Later, when they are relaxed and thinking about something else, the name will pop back into their minds. The only reassurance is that it happens to everyone, including
young people.  

Surely it’s time to knock the numerous negative stereotypes on the head and acknowledge that old people are just young people who have lived longer. We’re all on a continuum from young to old, we’re not two separate species. So how about making a pact; we’ll appreciate each other’s differences and opinions and be kind to one another. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Getting Old: Deal with it by Lee Janogly is out now (Mensch, £10)

Illustration: Joseph Joyce