‘Bed-blockers, vulnerable, past your sell-by date; the burden of an ageing population’. The language that is used to describe all of us as we get older is largely negative, portraying older age as a time of inevitable decline and the ageing population as a burden and a challenge. This is ageism – the stereotyping of people based on their age.
These messages, which we see and hear constantly in the media as well as in day-to-day conversation, are damaging to us as individuals and to society as a whole. They can frame the way that policy is developed, resources allocated, and support provided.
Sadly ageism is prevalent – a recent global report on ageism from the World Health Organisation found that one in two people worldwide are ageist against older people.1
So what does this mean for a strengths-based approach?
We need to understand the influence of ageism and how it can be internalised and limit what we feel we are worth, what we can contribute, how much we matter as we get older. If what we hear pretty constantly is that we are a burden and largely responsible for the pressures in social care and the NHS it is difficult to believe that we have agency and value. A strengths based approach can help to overcome this as long as it recognises the existence of ageism and its influence.
As we get older we want to continue to have purpose and to be valued for who we are. As one older person described it to me ‘we are more than just a collection of symptoms’.
We must start from the perspective of what we can do, rather than what we can’t, and it’s crucial that assumptions are not made about what is possible or what we are interested in based on our age. Getting to know who we are is also so important – ‘do not judge my story by the chapter you walked in on’ – and this includes an understanding of our networks, family and friends (if we are fortunate to have these) and the place where we live.
And place is important. It can be an enabling environment, easy to get around, safe and friendly. Or it can be a barrier, isolating us, cutting us off from company, activity and purpose. We need age-friendly communities – where we feel valued, included and respected as grow older. Where we can get out and about, do the things that matter to us, stay informed and be part of things.
Ending ageism and encouraging the development of age-friendly communities in Wales to enable us to age well are two of my priorities as Older People’s Commissioner. They are also, I would argue, essential parts of developing a strengths-based approach, providing the right foundations for the vital work that everyone in social care carries out.