Too old and ugly to be useful? Challenging negative representations of older people

This guest blog was contributed by Dr Ilona Haslewood, Programme Manager at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation

As part of the latest British Academy Debates series on ageing on 26 March, five contributors, including myself, discussed representations of older people  in literature, arts, culture and the media, under the somewhat challenging title of ‘Too old and ugly to be useful?. Ultimately, it was a foregone conclusion from the start: none of us could disagree with the basic claim that current representations are still overwhelmingly negative, showing older age as a period of decline, something to be fearful of. So what’s there to learn, then? A lot, it seems, both from history and from the present.

For example, we are given to construct the past as a time when there were hardly any older people, and those who did survive to old age were well respected and loving families looked after them – historical evidence shows us that none of this was universally true. As for the present, it is true that more of us live longer lives, but there are huge differences according to who you are and where you live. People tend to be healthier, but many spend a longer period with (often multiple) conditions and impairments, both physical and cognitive. Having high care and support needs can be a strong leveller and a bad one, making the person invisible behind the condition and ‘need’, someone to be looked after, who has nothing worthwhile to say or offer.

There is now greater diversity among older people too, but discrimination is still rife: ageism, particularly combined with sexism, is a persistent and potent mix. This shows up in various ways: in economic power differentials, the sorry state of the care sector (where care mostly still is the concern of women both as carers and people using care) and the public and media representation of older women. We were reminded in the course of the debate that throughout history every age has had its favourite stereotypes: in mediaeval times people worried about witches, today about women not conforming to the dominant ideas of beauty and youthfulness. The good news is that although it can be slow work, it is possible to challenge and crush stereotypes.  After all, how many of us still believe in witches today?

In our recent work ‘A Better Life’, we at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation made a conscious decision to use images, words and even music alongside evidence to press for change in attitudes, values, and narratives about ageing. We wanted to get across the uniqueness of older people who contributed to this work, including the humour, sense of fun, ambitions and varied lives. We wanted to be truthful too and show sadness and pain where this was part of the individual’s experience. But this was only a drop in the ocean: we need more positive but truthful representations and a balanced narrative on ageing, and most of all, we need to understand that by remaining in denial about older age we gain nothing.

Click here to watch a video recording of the debate.

The next in the series of British Academy Big Debates on ageing talks place in Edinburgh on 29 April, find out more on the  British Academy website

Find out the latest facts and stats about later life on the Age UK website 



Author: Age UK

Age UK is dedicated to helping everyone make the most of later life. In the UK we help more than 7 million older people each year by providing advice, combating loneliness and enabling independence. Locally, we work as part of a network of independent charities which includes Age UK, Age Cymru, Age NI and Age Scotland and over 150 local Age UK partners in England and Wales.

4 thoughts on “Too old and ugly to be useful? Challenging negative representations of older people”

  1. Do not forget elderly carers of disabled children. At the age of 87 I am still the sole carer of my autistic, asthmatic, learning difficulties, insulin diabetic, hypertensive son.

    Also I brought my elderly parents from their council flat as they dreaded going to a nursing home, and I cared for all 3 for over 17 years in my home, until their deaths in my home in 1993. I was never eligible to claim Carer’s allowance and had to take give up my full-time paid employment in order to become an unpaid Carer.

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