It happens a lot these days, ‘Aaah, bless you,’ responded the teller in a patronising voice when I was in the bank recently and said I was in a hurry as I was picking up my grandchildren from school. And at a blogger’s event, a young woman asked me about my blog. ‘Ooohhhh,’ she cooed in a how-sweet-is-that way when I said it was about grandparenting. That put me in my place then, a sweet, little old granny behaving in a suitably twinkly granny-like manner with little smiling grandchildren sitting at my feet as I drop pearls of wisdom into their darling little mouths like the grandad in the Werther’s Original Toffee ad. Wrong! I may be old, but I’m not little and I’m certainly not sweet – and I object to being stereotyped and separated off in this way. Ok, this all might seem trivial but could this casual stereotyping be symptomatic of a more worrying issue?
Maybe it’s not surprising that psychologists say stereotypes of grandparents are linked in people’s minds to those about the elderly. What are these stereotypes? Well, they’re not good. For example, the fact that we’re living longer is presented as a huge problem rather than a success story: we block hospital beds, are incapable of looking after ourselves, need to be cared for and all this costs the nation a whole lot of dosh. Older retired people are also seen as not contributing economically and therefore have no value. Also in our society, people relate being old to dying and because we don’t want to think about death or to prepare for it, we separate older people off into a faceless homogenous group.
Age UK says that a general culture of ageism has evolved in our society and I’ve read that the more industrialised and affluent a society is, the worse are the attitudes towards older people. And because there’s money about, people can afford to put an elderly relative in a home. Ok, in today’s world, for a lot of families a home is the only option and I know this decision is not taken lightly. And some of us might prefer to live in a home rather than be cared for by a relative or friend which can put a strain on relationships. But the race to the bottom in carers’ wages in elderly people’s homes (and those for other vulnerable people) shows that those caring and their work are given low value. And what value does this give to the people they care for? A newspaper recently reported that carers on zero contracts working with the elderly in Hampshire are being paid by the minute rather than by the hour at around half of the minimum wage.
And if that’s not bad enough, another newspaper reported an online Ebay-style auction in care for the elderly with councils going for the lowest tender. And there’s little or no training given either in an area which demands huge skill and understanding of what it means to be dependent, how to interact with people with memory loss or dementia or disabilities for them to have the best quality of life possible. I’m sure most workers are committed and caring, but with things like this going on, is it any wonder there’s been abuse in elderly care homes? And another factor is that if many elderly people are out of sight in homes and invisible to the outside world, how do younger people learn that ageing is part of life?
Well, there’s another group of us who feel invisible – the over seven million grandparents doing childcare – yes, seven out of 10 grandparents feel that this aspect of being older is more or less invisible to the powers that be even though this year the value of this childcare has been estimated at around £8 billion. That’s not exactly being blazoned about, is it? And guess what? Another stereotype is that us oldies are selfish: we’ve had university grants, high employment and cheap, available housing in the past. Now we sit in our houses watching values go up and rubbing our hands in glee while living off great pensions, we get free travel passes, don’t pay for expensive medical care that keeps us alive longer. This is presented as being paid for by younger people since changes made to the tax and benefits system means that they are now paying more than pensioners to the State. But I’m sure the vast majority of us would want university grants, jobs with decent pensions, great healthcare, and cheap housing for our children and grandchildren and would be willing to take cuts if this is what it takes to make it happen.
But the powers that be believe it’s us oldies who vote most in elections so think they need to keep us sweet. And this, of course, sets the generations up against each other and keeps people’s eye off the ball while bankers continue to pay themselves huge bonuses and the 1% get richer. At the same time, employment is atomised and casualised, benefits and tax credits cut, universities marketised, healthcare privatised and absolutely zilch is being done to stop outrageous soaring house prices and rents. Blame those selfish coffin dodgers, they’re saying, not us. And this in spite of Age Concern reporting that one in six pensioners live in poverty. And now older people who are still working are being accused of blocking younger people’s jobs while being expected to stay on at work to pay for their pensions. We can’t do anything right, can we?
You could say that the Werther’s Original grandad is a more positive stereotype – but it’s not real, is it? So let’s stop.stereotyping older people (or anyone else for that matter) – is this really the kind of society we want? As for me, I don’t want to be blessed, patronised, lumped together, blamed, invisible and, worse, abused. I just want to be treated as an equal human being, an equal participant in society. And although not everyone will become a grandparent, get real, people, you will get old and at the very least is this really the way you want to be treated?