Age and Opportunity: Overcoming Negativity through Creativity
On a bright spring afternoon with a freshly brewed coffee in hand, I have some moments to admire the framed posters that decorate Catherine Rose’s office. She’s worked with Age & Opportunity, a national not-for-profit organisation dedicated to promoting a greater participation by older people, for two and a half decades, and is the current chief executive.
Moments earlier, she’d left the room to take an urgent call which she soon returns from, explaining that it was from Brussels, looking for clarification on a piece of policy that needed to be submitted this afternoon. Pouring a cup of tea and settling down on the other side of the desk, Catherine exudes a sense of positivity, and seems very much at home in her position. However, as she explains, this wasn’t always the case.
‘I’ve been involved here since 1988’ she says, ‘and I had no ambition at all to work in the area of older people. I took the work that was going at the time because I needed work, but I was certainly not seeking to work in the area. My response to working in the area of older people was quite negative. I’d previously been working in media, communications, and publishing; and everyone I knew either laughed at me or sympathised with me. I was quite negative as well. And if I didn’t need to earn, I wouldn’t have come here. But the funny thing is, I have enjoyed every single minute of it. I suppose that the kind of work we are doing is quite groundbreaking. It isn’t the traditional ‘care of’ older people. It has been an enormous education, and great fun, and enlightening.
Part of the role that Age & Opportunity aims to play involves establishing and encouraging communication on a larger societal level. Perhaps their work has been done so well that it is difficult to imagine the situation before, a society which was perhaps more focused on the treatment of older people, rather than participation with older people. Catherine expands on the negative associations that working with older people involved: ‘I suppose the presuppositions that I brought myself would be the idea that the work would be boring. Age & Opportunity as an entity developed out of research that had been done at the time which showed that younger people’s attitudes towards older people were inherently negative. A long list of stereotypes emerged, and in many ways they are still prevalent: that older people are boring, that they are no longer able to learn, that they are unable to adapt, that they cannot use technology. These weren’t just indicators of what younger people thought about older people, they were essentially reflective of the negative attitudes that we have towards ourselves as we get older. We frequently develop this internalised ageism. I would even see it developing in myself as I have grown older in the job. You might imagine that by knowing the facts and patterns you might avoid internalising it, but we all have a tendency to do it. But I think that we are changing, not just in this organisation, but in larger society. We are managing to make a dent in it’.
THE POWER OF LANGUAGE
One efficient way to make a dent in any entrenched ideology is to carefully consider the language used to describe it. I wondered if the way in which we choose and use language can play a part in overcoming ageism. ‘I think that language is hugely important’ says Catherine, ‘you’ll get charged with political correctness if people think that you are carrying it too far, but it really is an important device to use. Even though it is not grammatically correct, for years we have used the term “older people” rather than “old people”. I think we choose to say that because “old” suggests that we have arrived somewhere and “older” suggests that we are still somewhere on the way. We have to be careful, because sometimes these language changes can be pushed too far. I’ve never liked some of the terms that some people use like “recycled teenager”, I think they can be as bad as “care of the aged” in the other direction’.
On a larger societal level, it looks like we have adopted ‘older people’ as the correct terminology. It might almost be a gaffe to refer to ‘the elderly’ or as Catherine pointed out, ‘the aged’ as they are terms that seem peppered with negative connotations. Is there something larger lurking behind our constant shifting of language?
‘I think that we tend to distance ourselves from an acceptance of aging’ says Catherine, ‘and I think that part of why we do that is because aging is a natural step towards dying. I don’t think it will ever be easy for us. Very few people want to admit to being old, and there are positive and negative aspects to that. The positive aspects are that we are living healthier lives, and maybe that is down to people refusing to become “old”.
THE DARKER SIDE OF AGING
‘I think the negative is this fear of dying. Perhaps the rationale is that if we don’t admit to being old, we don’t have to look at death and dying. Even within the movement of older people, we rarely talk about death and dying. We talk about active aging and positive aging and creative aging – and we do that to try to counteract all the negativity that is there. But in a way we are also ignoring the dying end of things’. ‘We have organised Bealtaine, which is a very vibrant festival. The idea is nearly two decades old now. I can still remember that what we wanted to achieve was to demonstrate that older people can be creative, can be vibrant, and can be lively. And I think that we have done that pretty well. It has now been taken to great heights internationally. I think that in Ireland we have managed to link the arts with aging, to great advantage’.
‘Early on in my work with Age & Opportunity I noticed an exhibition that IMMA had, they exhibited the work of older people who had collaborated with younger artists on a piece of art. Up until that point most of the focus on working with older people had involved working with the health services, because much of the funding we received came through the Department of Health. There is a peculiar thing which happens with people in the caring professions; there is enormous kindness towards older people and beneficial work, but there can sometimes be a tendency to infantilise older people who are becoming incapacitated in some way. We found that when we began to work with people in the arts rather than just people in medicine, the people in the arts were much more able to understand what we were saying – which was that older people are us, they are our older selves’.
‘It was enormously valuable to work with people in the arts who didn’t have the hang ups of the health services, and weren’t going to infantilise and who had something different to offer. In the health services you are offering caring, but in the arts the offer was creativity. There are research studies that show participation in the arts makes the process of aging better for us. It seems that if we engage with our own creativity, it seems to invigorate us in a way that say, learning to use a computer, doesn’t. It is very life enhancing. We have been in the privileged position to see how life changing the arts can be for some people. It might be music for one person, drama, or dance for another. The arts provide something phenomenally valuable for the aging process’.
Catherine draws my attention back to the posters I’d been admiring in her absence. They represent different campaigns run by Age & Opportunity through the years. One, from 1993, asks the question: ‘If you didn’t know how old you were, how old would you be?’, and another, under the slogan ‘joining forces’ shows a teenager and an older person sharing a set of headphones. ‘There was so much negativity back then’ says Catherine, ‘some of these posters and campaigns were seen to be absolutely mad at the time. I don’t think you’d even notice them now, and maybe that speaks to the amount of work that has been done to change our attitudes as a society towards aging’.
Catherine suggests that this change can happen on a localised level, as well on a larger cultural level. One of the key changes to happen on the localised level is adopting an ‘exchange’ mindset, which ties in very closely to the creative exchanges that are facilitated through Age & Opportunity. ‘Intergenerational work is really interesting. It doesn't work if it is a “doing for” someone else; "doing things for" can become very disempowering for people. I don’t think it is enhancing to only to be a giver or only be a receiver, I think we have learned that a model of “doing things with” can offer much more to both parties’.
On a larger cultural level, freer access to education means a massive shift in perspective as well. ‘For the present people over sixty’ says Catherine, ‘a lot of us would have only had primary education. It wasn’t common to go to university. The current younger generation, by the time they are older, will have had much more access to education. And not only education, they are also encountering and participating in the arts in a way that previous generations could not’.
Perhaps, given the shifting attitude towards older people, we can also expand what organisations like Age & Opportunity include in their discourse, indeed it might be essential for the current younger generations to do this. ‘I suppose it is too scary for younger people to be thinking about ending up in a residential care setting’ says Catherine, ‘it really wouldn’t be a bad idea at all, if as a population, we were to think about what kind of life we want to live when we are not as able bodied as we were’.
‘Bealtaine was about vibrancy and fire, and instilling that kind of energy and fire. We have really established that notion through Bealtaine that older people are vibrant and energetic if we want to be. We are now going to test Samhain in November, with the darker side of aging. I wouldn’t have felt confident about doing that some years ago when we started Bealtaine. I am really personally keen to test that darker side of getting old. It isn’t all wonderful, it is the stage before dying. It can be really difficult, it can mean pain and incapacitation and grief and loss. I feel that we are confident enough now as an organisation and even as a society, to have a little look at the darker side of aging. Providing a space to explore in a testing way, and see what comes out of it. Samhain would be the low point of the year and I think it might be really interesting. It will be a different kind of celebration. I don’t know if celebration would even be the word…an exploration might be better’.
THE FUTURE OF BEING OLDER
If we start to think and start to engage now with how we want our own futures to be as older people, then we can continue to facilitate this change that is evidently happening in our culture. But the momentum requires effort. ‘Unless more of us engage with it as an issue’ says Catherine, ‘then politicians and policy makers aren’t going to make these changes’. Age & Opportunity is just one of a myriad of voices calling for a focus on the value of the arts, and they are one who have shown anecdotally, and through research, the positive difference that engagement with the arts can have on individual lives, as well as on a larger societal scale. ‘We are collectively passionate about the value of the arts’ says Catherine, ‘and we dearly want the people who have the power to make policies to listen and to observe’.
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