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Depictions of ageing

In this video, Virpi Timonen talks about different depictions of ageing throughout the ages.
Throughout history, people have produced images of old age and ageing. In the past, many of these images were presented in a formulaic way. A good example of such formulaic depictions are the ‘Ages of Man’ illustrations that were popular in Europe between the 16th and 19th centuries. Here, the human life course is presented as an orderly and predictable progression from infancy, to childhood, youth, midlife, and old age. After the prime, the most vigorous and successful point in midlife, the latter part of the life course is portrayed and an inevitable decline towards mounting disabilities and death. With some gender variations, both women and men are depicted as being subject to the inevitable vicissitudes of frail old age.
Interestingly, and perhaps surprisingly, our contemporary societies still contain many echoes of this depiction of old age as a period of inevitable decline. We’re all familiar with media images of frail, vulnerable looking older people that are often used to illustrate news about the health and long-term care systems and a variety of social problems, such as crime and loneliness. However, parallel to such images of suffering and marginalisation in old age, contemporary societies are also producing a constant stream of images of old age that are in many ways the polar opposite of the depictions of misery in old age. We are surrounded by pictures of older adults, who are in excellent health, happy, and enjoying life.
In fact, in many cases, there’s little or no difference to how young people are portrayed. As a result, we witness contrasting and often conflicting images of old age. On the one hand, images reflecting the idea that old age is associated with ill health and disability. And on the other hand, images that send the message of almost eternal youthfulness, an extension of midlife behaviours into old age. It is important to ask why are we presented with such conflicting images of ageing and old age? In part, the diversity of depictions reflects the diversity of older populations, where, for instance, some are in excellent health, while others experience extensive disabilities. Some older adults are isolated, while others cultivate and maintain extensive social networks.
Extensive data sets on older populations demonstrate this heterogeneity in ageing. However, it is also important to recognise that images are generated and presented for specific reasons and reflect the viewpoints of those who promulgate the images. Many important actors in society benefit from particular representations of old age. For instance, a company might want to generate the idea that consuming a particular product will result in a more youthful appearance. An interest group or organisation might want to push a certain image because it wants to bring about policies that serve the interests of some of its members. Images of old age are important because they shape the way in which we think about ageing and old people.
Negative images of ageing can lead to generalisations that are unhelpful and damaging, such as the portrayal of older adults as a burden. However, portrayals that appear extremely positive can also be problematic if they imply that all older adults must adhere to a specific ideal of what it is to age well. The fact that we witness very diverse depictions of old age also suggests that old age has now become culturally fragmented. There is no standard formula to what ageing is supposed to be like, as there was in earlier periods in history.
This means that it is increasingly accepted that older adults can make choices regarding the kinds of activities they wish to engage in, the kinds of clothes they wear, the kinds of social relationships they cultivate. However, parallel to this expansion in individual freedom and choice, powerful social actors are seeking to exert an influence on outcomes at the population level. For instance, all governments in developed welfare states are seeking to bring about an extension in working lives. Ageing in contemporary societies is a dynamic process. We all shape ageing through our behaviour, the discourses that we produce, and through our reactions to the images of ageing that we see around us.
Select one or two images of ageing or older adults from current news advertising or online media. What kind of messages about ageing and being old are conveyed by these images?

We are presented with many conflicting images of ageing and old age in the media, in art, in books, and on the internet.

  • Negative images of ageing can lead to generalisations that are unhelpful and damaging. For example, this can include messages that older adults are a burden.

  • However, portrayals that are extremely positive can also be problematic if they suggest that all older adults must adhere to a specific ideal of what it is to age well.

Ageing is a dynamic process. We understand ageing, through our behaviours and through our reactions to the images of ageing that we see around us.

  • Describe an image of an older person you have seen in an advertisement, on television, or on the internet.
  • Do you think this image gives an accurate or inaccurate depiction of an older person? Use the Comments section to share your thoughts.

Virpi Timonen is a Professor in Social Policy and Ageing at Trinity College Dublin.

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