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Attitudes to age: it’s all in the mind


Research into negative stereotypes has shown that society’s poor opinions about ageing has negative impacts, not just on elders but on us all, writes Dr Maggie Haertsch.

Sophia Loren said: “There is a fountain of youth: it is your mind, your talents, the creativity you bring to your life and the lives of people you love. When you learn to tap this source, you will truly have defeated age.”

Is this the secret to Sophia Loren’s agelessness? If it all comes down to attitude, she has it in spades.

But the experience of ageing is all too often fraught with negative beliefs fuelled by declining physical and mental health. Aged care services can perpetuate dependency and feelings of a lack of self-worth if we are not careful. How often do we hear an elder say, “I can’t do that anymore”? How often as an aged care provider do we accept that to be the case and not look to find alternatives or supportive approaches?

Ageist stereotypes negatively affect health systems such as the poor uptake of qualified health professionals to work in the sector presenting serious long-term workforce shortages. Some undergraduate courses do not have aged care clinical placements as the educational value is perceived to be low. In her article on challenging ageist stereotypes, Marcia Ory and her colleagues label five common myths:

  1. To be old is to be sick;
  2. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks;
  3. The secret to successful ageing is to choose your parents wisely;
  4. The lights may be on but the voltage is low; and,
  5. The elderly don’t pull their own weight.

The most common forms of ageism include derogatory birthday cards making fun of the older aged, health professional interactions attributing ailments because of the person’s age and being told “you are too old for that”, and common ageist social interactions include being ignored or being treated with less dignity. It is enough to put anyone off getting older!

We know that creative people such as actors, artists, dancers and musicians often live long, fulfilling lives. One amazing Australian centenarian is an inspiring example.

Eileen Kramer is most likely the longest living (she doesn’t like the word old) working dancer, choreographer and costume maker in Australia, if not the world. She now takes a few extra naps in the day but her creativity is nothing short of unstoppable as she develops her next dance work, The Early Ones. She is not only choreographing the piece, but also doing the set design, costume design and plans to be dancing in the production among some of Australia’s best dancers.

Centenarian Eileen Kramer in rehearsal with fellow dancers

Centenarian Eileen Kramer in rehearsal with fellow dancers

Eileen has a link to an important part of Australian dance. She was in the Bodenwieser Ballet, the first modern dance company in Australia. She is also an author and painter. She was a life model for Norman Lindsay, learned to do the twist with Louis Armstrong, and lunched with Checko Marx. In Paris she knew Ella Fitzgerald and observed the vigorous conversations of the famous French writers and intellectuals Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. At the age of 99, Eileen packed up her suitcases and left America and her beloved Trillium Performing Arts Collective, to come home after being away for 40 years, because “she missed the Kookaburras”.

Eileen featured recently in an Australian Ageing Agenda news story and is capturing the hearts and minds of many people worldwide. At this time, Eileen’s story is going viral. She has attracted over two million views on the ABC news story and the outpouring of messages to her is both prolific and profound.

Talk about positive ageing! One comment that is typical of the hundreds following said:

“Wow if that’s what growing old is about, I can look forward to it.”

An interesting remark, because so many of us are fearful about ageing and there are good reasons for this.

In 2015 we treasure our children and venerate beauty but have scant regard for elders. Research into negative stereotypes has shown that society’s poor opinions about ageing has negative impacts, not just on elders but on society itself.

The answer to these problems lies in shifting our attitudes and it’s so easy to do.

Next time you encounter an ‘older’ person, go mining for gold and you could be inspired:

  • create a conversation
  • connect with our past
  • imagine the potential.

It’s time to reframe our attitudes to ageing if we are all to live well longer.

Eileen’s incredible life story is an inspiration. She herself, feels liberated by turning 100, “no longer having to pretend I am 35” and experiences a sense of profound freedom.

Eileen suggests the secret to longevity is to “try to do creative work, because if you’re dealing with creative work you’re doing something new all the time.”

Her dream is to bring The Early Ones to the stage and we are trying to make this possible through our crowdfunding campaign.

There will be three performances of Eileen’s new work The Early Ones at The Independent Theatre, North Sydney  from 13 to 14 March, which coincides with the beginning of national Seniors Week.

The story of Eileen Dancing @ 100 will be broadcast on the ABC 1 Compass program at 6.30pm on Sunday 15 March.

Dr Maggie Haertsch is executive director and CEO of the Arts Health Institute, a non-profit organisation working to improve lives through the integration of the arts into all aspects of health and aged care environments. 

Australian Ageing Agenda is media partner of the AHI.



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2 Responses to Attitudes to age: it’s all in the mind

  1. Anonymous October 25, 2017 at 2:20 pm #

    old people are unique

  2. Anonymous February 12, 2019 at 11:48 am #

    I would rather be old than the alternative (dead)

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