A couple of years ago I attended a seminar in London. The presenter, a medical doctor, spoke about the importance of self-presentation in modern life and, in particular, he focused on how older people are often portrayed as sad or decaying while, he argued, there are many opportunities nowadays to still look pretty or even beautiful in later life. To illustrate his point, the speaker chose a series of pictures of actresses older than 60, all sporting designer gowns, professional make-up and, in many cases, evident signs of plastic surgery. This, claimed the speaker, was proof that successful ageing is attainable.
I find problematic the assumption that the right outfit, the perfect hair style, or a slender figure certify a person’s success, no matter their age, and, listening to the presentation, I started questioning the meaning of successful ageing.
When the concept first appeared (1), its definition included an idea of collectiveness: successful ageing meant that society could and should provide “the greatest good for the greatest number” (p.8).
What I find concerning is that, in recent years, the notion of successful ageing has taken a different turn. A series of definition have emerged, from disciplines such as biomedicine, psychology, sociology, and the term has also captivated the interest of journalists and the public. However, the accent is nowadays put on individual choices rather than collective achievements. Ageing is understood as controlled by the individual while words like “choice” and “effort” are used to suggest that commitment can make a substantial difference in the process of becoming older.
We know that there are activities that can help in later life. For example, contributing to the community by being involved in volunteering or political activities seems to have a positive impact on how individuals experience ageing (3). For this reason, measures such as the Active Ageing Index (‘AAI’) are created, to help governments plan policies for older people (ibid.).
But in the discourse on successful ageing, what is often left unsaid is that some older people simply can't choose to have a more active life, for example because they have a disability or because they are mentally frail. Furthermore, the word “successful” conveys an idea of dishonour for those who don’t fall in the category, as if it was in the hands of the individual to be more or less healthy, more or less wealthy, in later life. What is even more dangerous is that this stigma hits harder exactly those people who need more help and more attention, resulting in an even greater segregation. This situation doesn’t only allow policy makers to place more and more pressure on individuals instead of planning inclusive strategies, it also implies that some people are better or worse at becoming older, as if ageing was a win-or-lose game played with fair rules.
Opportunities, over the life-course, are not equal. There are differences that can have a significant effect on the path of life and do not depend - or at least not entirely - on individual agency (e.g. gender, ethnicity, health). Moreover, it shouldn’t be forgotten that inequalities accumulate during the life-course (2) therefore it is unlikely that someone who had a previous illness, a disability, or a lower level of education and income, will experience ageing as those who were born healthy or have inherited wealth from their family.
In my opinion, too often older people are seen as a collective, homogenous entity, and the diversity of the population is lost in the discourse about old age. The growing focus on individual agency might tragically transform ageing into an individual pursue of optimal performance, deleting from the discourse rich personal experiences of later life that are not necessarily productive nor active but that do exist in their own rights and, therefore, do matter.
Havighurst, R. J. (1963). Successful aging. Processes of aging: Social and psychological perspectives, 1, 299-320.
Dannefer, D. (2003). Cumulative advantage/disadvantage and the life course: Cross-fertilizing age and social science theory. The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 58(6), S327-S337.
Zaidi, A., Gasior, K., Zolyomi, E., Schmidt, A., Rodrigues, R., & Marin, B. (2017). Measuring active and healthy ageing in Europe. Journal of European Social Policy, 27(2), 138-157.
About the Author
Dr Francesca Ghillani joined the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing in 2017 as a Research Fellow.
Dr Francesca Ghillani was awarded a DPhil in Sociology from the University of Oxford, under the supervision of Prof. Sarah Harper. Her doctoral research identified four key dynamics that regulate the interplay between ageing, migration, and bodily practices.
Prior to Oxford, Francesca successfully passed the postgraduate degree “Consultant in Autobiographical and Self-Analytical Writing in Assistance Relationships” at the University of Milan - Bicocca, a multidisciplinary course where she learnt life-writing theories and techniques.
Earlier, she graduated in Humanities (BA and MA) with 110/110 summa cum laude (full marks with honours) at the University of Parma, Italy. Her thesis, a personal account about critical autobiography and otherness, was selected as one of the winners of the national thesis prize “Antonio e Luigi Goi”.
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