Suddenly, I find myself becoming a reluctant ageist!

As I’ve grown older, I’ve become increasingly involved in issues of concern to older people, and am an active spokesperson against demonstrations of ageism in the media as well as in our wider society.

So why, now, in the space of two weeks, have I turned, unwillingly, into something of an ageist myself? It’s as the result of two comedies – a movie and a revue – that I’ve seen in that time. The two of them, combined, have shown me that it is clear that in this day and age, there are – amongst the middle-aged – some who can be quite damning of we older people, dismissive of our concerns, and quite malicious in mocking us through negative stereotypes of ageing. So, clearly, if I am making negative comments about another age group, that – weirdly – makes me an ageist in my turn. And I’m just going to suck that up as I show you how I’ve come to this point.

Example 1 is a somewhat derisory review that dams with faint praise a new movie featuring a stalwart cast of normal-looking older people facing and surviving a variety of challenges that can come with age. They include physical disability, marriage breakdown, caring for a dementing partner, loneliness, and death of close family member and friend. And yes, for all that, as it is a British comedy, it comes with some lively and fun moments, and predictably happy resolutions. It is an entertainment, after all.

I’m talking about Finding Your Feet, reviewed in The Sydney Morning Herald by Jake Wilson. And after I read the review I became curious about his age and checked it out, and he looks to be in his 40s. He starts his review by saying “Call me unfeeling, but there are few genres that spark less enthusiasm than comedy-dramas about old folks learning that they have life in them yet.” This, about a film whose trailer had lots of old folk, including me, very much looking forward to seeing it!

He then proceeds on with the lazy critic’s mode of review, by summarising the plot of the entire movie, giving away every twist, and concluding with a dig at the director, Richard Loncraine by saying that “Viewers of the same generation as Sandra and Bif (and Loncraine) may sense condescension in how thoroughly it panders to their perceived interests, or they may decide that there are worse things than being pandered to, once in a while.”

Actually, no. After seeing it, neither I nor my friends felt condescended to or pandered by a director who – it turns out (checking again….) is now 72. Rather, how we saw it was that he was reflecting some realities that were perhaps experienced first-hand, and that we know we might have to come to terms with as we get older (if we haven’t already). And he’s done this through showing us a realistic bunch of old people (including Timothy Spall as a romantic lead!) dealing with them in some positive ways that show them making the most of the time they have left. Lovely! And I might well take up dancing as a result – as (old) friends of mine have already done, and are loving it.

Example 2, Senior Moments, is – as the cover of its program put it – a “comedy revue about ‘old’ people” and the young people they have to deal with.” It stars a whole bunch of talented older actors, including – among others – Benita Collins (the legendary Play School presenter), actor John Wood, and the amazing multi-talented Max Gillies. And at the piano, and occasionally taking part in other ways is the bearded face of long time Channel 9 musical director Geoff Harvey. So, as someone who enjoys a laugh, that suggested a lot for me to look forward to, and something that I felt I could later review for HelloCare.

So, here I am, doing that. But what I wasn’t expecting was to be increasingly disappointed with the unrelenting stream of depressingly negative stereotypes of ageing that were being poked fun at. A Sydney Morning Herald review of an earlier staging of this revue tried to put a positive spin on it by quoting some of its star performers, such as Collings saying that there is “a fair bit of self-deprecating humour.” And Lex Marinos, performing then, said that “I operate on the basis that I’d rather make a fool of myself than have other people make a fool of me. I just try to get in first, really.”

According to that review, also, “much of Senior Moments’ humour comes from the ever more rapidly increasing generation gap, such as a scene where an older person attempts to pay by cheque, leaving a youngster completely dumbfounded.” I was dumbfounded, alright, but it was by this point of view. As just one of the legion of old people who were being mocked in that way, I would like to point out that starting as young adults, we are the generation that invented modern technology and have been adapting and keeping up with it and the internet since their earliest days and up into the present.

And while, as Collings summed it up in the program, “There’s 300 years of experience on stage, so I think, “What could go wrong?’” the answer to that is having writers who are not writing from the same body of experience. Rather, the writers and producers – Kevin Brumpton and Angus Fitzsimons – look to be in their 40s (unless their photo was taken a long, long time ago). And my question is, what is it about guys in their 40s, and their views on we old folk?

As a bit of a reality check for them, I’d like to conclude by citing some opinions about the growing phalanx of centenarians in our time. A 2005 BBC News feature, for example, noted that some of our intrigue with them “is based on the sheer sweep of history these people have witnessed: the huge breadth of world events, inventions and changes they would have seen and experienced.”  From that perspective, the description of them that Australian demographer and social trends commentator Bernard Salt gave to The Australian in 2007 seems particularly apt. He called them “our very own astronauts of time; the indisputable winners of life’s lottery.”

And psychology professor Nancy Pachana took this aspect a step further in The Courier-Mail in 2012, using it as the basis of identifying what she considered to be a significant misconception about old people, and their capacity to adapt to change.

“Think for a minute,” she pointed out, “they’ve witnessed the arrival of electricity, telephones, radio, television, cars, aeroplanes, trains, computers and internet, vaccines and medical advancements. Then there are two world wars, as well as conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan; the atom bomb, the hydrogen bomb, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster; space exploration, the first moon landing, the Challenger disaster, robots on Mars; the Great Depression, famines, natural disasters; women’s and Aborigines’ right to vote, racial equality, political freedom, political assassinations; the millennium, September 11 terrorist attacks, the United States of America’s first black president Barack Obama, Australia’s first female prime minister.

“What’s it like to have lived that long and seen all these changes? This is why our image of older people is really bad because we stereotype them as being inflexible and not being able to cope with change, when really they can, and have. They also have really gracefully coped with some of the more negative aspects of ageing such as illness and loss of family and friends.”

She went on to say that “too often people are boxed into age brackets, but they are more interesting and unique the older they get by virtue of life experiences and choices. ‘In a group of 100-year-old people, each is a very different from the other, compared to a group of 20-year-olds, because each of those 100-year-olds have had 100 years of making individual choices – to be married or not, to go overseas or not, to pursue study or not, and they’re all unique choices, whereas if you’ve only lived 20 years, people’s experiences at that point are a lot more similar.’”

So there, relatively young ‘uns – how about moving away from simplistically derogatory notions of we oldsters and starting to tune in to some of the realities of our complex and capable lives?

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