Improving the lives of older people
and their carers by transforming the
communities in which they live and work"

Ageism – how do older people see themselves?

“Societal ageism feeds perceptions that older people have little to contribute to society or the economy. Although the South African Older Person’s Act of 2006 exists to maintain and promote the rights, status, well-being, safety and security of older persons, the act and its regulations are poorly implemented and these issues are overlooked as older people retreat (often without wanting to) from economic and social life”1. It also would seem that this act does not engage older people themselves to any constructive course of action.

I have been thinking about this for many years, and I think it is “normal” to want to find someone or something to blame for this negative positioning of older people. Tom Kitwood spoke of “personhood as a standing or status that is bestowed upon one human being, by others, in the context of a relationship and social being. It implies recognition, respect and trust”2. Does this mean that the personhood of older people is determined solely by the status that they are afforded by society in general?

Ageism can be seen as a construct of societal projection. But what about the older individuals themselves? Ageism, according to our friend Google,  is “a tendency to regard older persons as debilitated, unworthy of attention, or unsuitable for employment”. If is the way that the world sees older people, my concern is – how do older people see themselves? Do they simply accept this status and buy into it? What happens to “agency”?

The Eden Alternative offers a very powerful paradigm shift in changing the way that the world sees older people on the one hand, but even more powerful is the way that older people sees themselves as being in this world. It is not a one way street – changing the culture of ageism is a highway with two way traffic, heavy vehicles, scooters, trucks and cars and bicycles, all racing at a vicious speed! Without traffic signs, this would be a highway of hell and chaos. What are these traffic signs? They are the principles of The Eden Alternative and the Domains of Well-being™. We all need to navigate our own way on this journey, and our Elders are no exception. Being on this highway means taking charge of our inherent right to agency.

Yes – another definition. What do we mean by “agency”? According to Bartlett and O’Connor (2010) agency is defined as “the capacity of individuals to influence the circumstances in which they live” (p. 22). We should guard against positioning Elders simply as people who need our “care”. “Agency” is something intrinsic, it is indeed not a “status that is bestowed upon an individual” (Kitwood, 1997a, pp 46/7). “Agency” also implies that Elders are self-enabled, given the context where they are positioned as persons, and not as persons in need of our care interventions only.

This is our challenge – to empower Elders to stay on the highway, and not to “park off” by the roadside. We need a new form of activism from within the over 60’s community, taking themselves more seriously as Elders, as an integral part of the economy, and not just as cheap and always available babysitters. We need to stop speaking on their behalf, as much as they need to start speaking on their own behalf. This requires a new dialogue, a discourse of engagement and well-being. It requires an active participation in constructing a new society in which intergenerational connectivity is seen as the new economy of this civil society.

The Eden Alternative is a powerful tool to facilitate this societal revolution.

Rayne Stroebel

1 World Health Organization, 2015, World report on ageing and health. P. 16

2 Kitwood, T. 1997. Dementia Reconsidered: The Person Comes First. Open University Press, Buckingham. P. 8

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