Sunday, January 13, 2008

Age Discrimination

The debate in the U.K. about public care and respect for older people is growing, and I wonder if it could become so significant a campaign that one day it might change public perceptions. I hope so. Before I retired part of my job involved visiting people in local authority care homes, some of which treated the elderly with a rough kindness that was never very far from contempt, and where the furnishing and cleanliness were appalling. There seem to have been improvements since then. We visited a relative in a care home recently and were impressed with the conditions People had their own comfortable rooms as well as attractive lounges where they could socialise, the food we were told was very good. But our country has still a great deal to learn before older people are accepted and affirmed as an integral part of society, and looked after when they can no longer look after themselves.

The journalist, Jackie Ashley, was writing a few weeks ago about age prejudice, which she calls the last great discrimination that has yet to be tackled. It seems to be acceptable, she says, ‘to mock the old, push the old to one side, insist that the old retire from useful work, in this hurrying, imperious, self-regarding youth-culture. Everyone who works in the media knows how much pressure there is to keep wrinkly faces and grey hair tucked away from readers or viewers or, most important, advertisers.’

Ashley claims that in key ways, age discrimination is getting worse, not better. She judges that the government is not as serious about age discrimination as it is about other areas of equality law, even though it has recently admitted that ageist attitudes are deeply entrenched. She wonders if ageism is the desperate cry of denial of the middle aged majority. To many cultures, notably Asian ones, the idea that a 60 year old is not fit to be listened to, whereas someone of 30 lacking those depths of experience, is, would seem crazy.

It is our fate, she says, that in this scientifically enhanced, rich world, we shall live to a ripe old age. ‘We have to start to adjust to that. We need to be a country in which people who feel fit, can keep working and keep paying tax; and where those who suffer ailments of age are treated with respect by others’. She concludes that when that happens we might stop sneering at, and patronising the multitude of older Britons all around us. It is not polite, she says. But more important still, since we are all on the way to joining them, it is not sensible.

So the debate goes on.



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