This guest blog was contributed by Bill Bytheway, Visiting Research Fellow at the Open University, and author of Unmasking Age (Policy Press, 2011).
On page 124 of my book, ‘Ageism’ (1995), I attempted to describe how ‘a room for older people’ might admit anyone, regardless of age, on the basis of self-definition. I argued that it would be perfectly feasible and acceptable for anyone to enter it, and request services designed to assist ‘older’, rather than ‘younger’, people. In making the case, I remembered a woman of 55 who lived on her own and was in hospital with a broken leg. At the time (the mid-1980s) I was working for a hospital discharge scheme that focused exclusively on patients aged 65 or more. ‘Is there any help available to people like me?’ she asked. It was this simple question which made me realise how ageist all forms of age bar are, no matter how well-intentioned.
The RoAD (Research on Age Discrimination) projectwas undertaken between
2004 and 2007 by a team based at the Open University, working in collaboration with Help the Aged. When we were planning the project, we decided to involve older people at all stages and in all roles and that, in implementing this aim, we would not impose any age bars. No one would be deemed too old or too young to take part. The only requirement was that participants should understand that they were involved, possibly amongst other things, as ‘older people’.
This included all members of the small team of people employed to manage the project. As a result we were sensitised to age: at some point, we celebrated the 40th birthday of the youngest of us. We also employed twelve temporary fieldworkers in different parts of the UK, the youngest of whom, aged 44 and a grandparent, was more than ready to draw on her experience as an older person.
The project also had a website in which we invited anyone, regardless of age, to submit examples of age discrimination. We made it clear that, whilst we recognised that young people suffered age discrimination too, our interest was focused on that experienced by older people: what it is like to be judged ‘too old’ and what the consequences of this were for them. Again this worked well without any attention being given to the ages of contributors.
Over the course of the two years, over 300 people were actively involved in the project. Looking back, we were successful in achieving our aim of involving a wide range of older people without imposing age bars. There was just one exception: realising that there was a constant danger that ‘younger’ older people were being over-represented, we undertook a ‘sub-project’ focussing solely on the experiences of people aged 85 or more.
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