Heroes or Villains?


One could argue that 2014 is a great year to be an elderly citizen. The 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings has just been commemorated, and the 100th year since the outbreak of World War 1 will be marked this November. It should not come as a surprise to any of us who have an account of any social media platform that our feeds will be swamped with photos of the older population and soldiers, commending their bravery an sacrifice.

I was doing just this earlier today: flicking down my Facebook page, and seeing photo after photo, with captions such as “Once a soldier, always a soldier”, “One LIKE = One Salute to This Old Soldier”, “SHARE this to show Your support for all our old soldiers”. Let’s be honest – it’s really corny. However, the first one did catch my eye and really got me thinking.

Take a look at the photo below.


The image inspired me in a way. I put it to my Mum, who is doing a degree in Health Studies, and looking at ageing and the elderly; the perceptions people have of older people, perceptions older people have of themselves, the secrets of “successful ageing”, and the consequences of an increasingly ageing population.

When I asked her opinion on the photograph above, she said: “I bet he doesn’t feel that way”. And why should he? Why would an old soldier want to be overshadowed by the horrors of his past? For any of us who have had a bad experience, we do not want to live in that moment. We remember, and move on. Those who have fought likely remember their fallen comrades, and go on with their lives, not relive the days. I have to say, she is in a good position to provide such an opinion, given that she served time as a nurse in the army herself.

However, I digress. The reverence we are currently showing towards our older citizens is inconsistent in nature. There is a great pool of research that indicates we are not as respecting of our elderly population as we perhaps should be.

In an interview with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, actor and Time Team presenter Tony Robinson described our attitude towards the elderly as “a stain on our society”

“When people get to a certain age, particularly when they become infirm, by and large we treat them very, very badly…They should be respected, we should treat them like we treat anybody else”.

This statement appears to be backed by the Daily Express headline issued in February this year which states: “New Attack on Britain’s Elderly”. This contrasts to the issue they produced on the 6th of June, which included a pullout souvenir of their D-Day issue, and the headline: “World salutes the Normandy heroes”.

What is the cause of this mistreatment then? What I find shocking is, if you type “the elderly are…” into Google, the first suggestions are “…a burden” and “…a burden on society”.

The trouble is, our society is becoming increasingly older. This is, of course, absolutely no fault of our elderly population, but people naturally look for someone to blame for their problems. The reaction to George Osborne’s Budget announcement to get rid of the need for pensioners having to buy into annuities was met with much criticism that old people were the focus of the budget.

When people get to a certain age, particularly when they become infirm, by and large we treat them very, very badly.

The over-65 population in the United Kingdom currently sits at around 10 million. That figure, according to the UK Parliament website, is set to increase by 5.5 million in the next 20 years, and jump to 19 million by 2050.

It is true that this is putting financial pressure on the NHS and the country as a whole. According to the King’s Fund, the amount of our GDP that goes to paying for the NHS amounts to seven times more (in real terms) than 50 years ago. The projected figure for the next 50 years is that 1/5 of our GDP will be spent on the NHS. Furthermore, the Policy Exchange think tank warned in a 2010 report that caring for the elderly could cost up to £106bn a year.

What is deeply saddening about all of this, though, is the elderly are not oblivious to it all.

A report found 61% of over-65s feel as if they are seen as a burden on society, and more than half feel the media encourages this stereotype. The report, called Shaping Our Age, also found 56% of older people feel they are ignored.

These statistics were put into real terms by Richard Hammond.

He conducted an experiment, whereby he had a mask of what he would look like as an old person put on his face. He was then to walk around London for the day, acting like an old person; using a walking stick, restricting his walking speed, and so on. Upon watching this for the first time, I criticised it for just living-up the well known stereotypes associated with old age. However, it did well to prove the difficulties faced by elderly people on a daily basis.

“As the day wore on, I realised things just didn’t work for me anymore”, he said.

“Because I was walking slowly, I felt under pressure crossing the road…When I was in the supermarket…I didn’t want to be some old duffer in the way”. Hammond concludes, saying: “By the end of the day, I felt very, very lonely, and very sad, and completely invisible”.

What Hammond described, also, was the youth-oriented world of today. With “posters of younger people”, and things attracting younger people; almost alienating the elderly, and making them out to be different.

Indeed, his comments are justified through research, as we have seen. Barrett and Pai conducted a study which used sketches of older people, and showed them to students. The words the students then used to describe the images were then recorded with interesting results.

They found that there were positive phrases used, such as: “wise”, “knowledgeable”, “experienced”, “patriotic”, and so forth. However, the list of negative descriptions was “substantially longer”. “Grumpy”, “forgetful”, “wrinkled”, “shrewd”, “greedy”, “close-minded”, “boring”, and “difficult”, were just some of the words used.

It is sad, and you see it often enough in the media about the elderly population being a burden, costing us all more money. Also about the scandals revealed through undercover reports into health care towards the elderly, and the abuse they have received.

It is a problem we are having to face more often, but we should go about it in a respectful way. It is not the fault of the older population that they are living longer, that there are more of them, that there are not as many young people as there were before, and we should treat them with the same respect as we would anyone else.

As Tony Robinson says: “Our treatment of the elderly is a stain on our society, and once everybody understands that -…all the politicians…all the ordinary people going about their everyday lives – once, and only once people all understand that, can we begin to make things better. It’s about a change [in the mind]”.

We all age (if we are lucky). “Older people are us, just a bit further on in development and experience” (A). We need to treat everyone as we would like to be treated ourselves. Despite our current “salute” towards the older generation, in a couple of weeks, we’ll be seeing the same old headlines as before: the burden, the problem, and so on.

It is a sad truth, and the bandwagon is not a nice one to be riding on when the wheels are falling off.


(A). Reed, J., Stanley, D., and Clark, C. (2004). Health, Well-Being, and Older People. Policy Press: Bristol.


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