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  • Writer's pictureRichard Irvine


By Chris Stride

Never, ever, call me “dear”. Even more importantly, do not interject “bless!” when I have made an observation or a comment as if, because I am seventy-three, I am a person of diminished faculties gamely trying to communicate. How patronising! How wide of the mark of the person that I am in reality.

I say this with feeling having spent considerable time in recent months in the hands of the NHS. Don't get me wrong, I have benefited from excellent medical treatment of which I am appreciative. However, the culture in the NHS leads to the assumption that, as a person of mature years, I conform to their stereotype of the elderly; dependant, uncertain and needing ‘care’. For them “dear” and “bless” are intended as words of comfort and a demonstration of ‘caring’. But how patronising and how unempowering.

No doubt some older patients do feel vulnerable and uncertain and appreciate this approach, but definitely not all.

I accept that I am fortunate in that my medical interventions have not curtailed my activities and life continues without compromise. But even when someone is terminally ill it does not necessarily mean that they stop being the person they have always been. I recall a friend, in the latter stages of cancer, enthusiastically talking about some land he had bought with his brother and their plans to build a house there. Another friend who was present, a doctor, turned to me afterwards and said: “Does he not know how ill he is, he should be putting his affairs in order, not making plans for the future”. The doctor could only see the stereotype of the terminally ill patient, not the vibrant personality determined to live life to the full. Ned Sherrin, in the days leading up to his death, famously entertained friends with Champagne parties in his hospital room.

The NHS is not alone in having outdated stereotypes of older people. Large corporations around the world are guilty of it. Not only that, they continue to project and perpetuate these stereotypes. We ‘third agers’ do not like it.

In the United States, a recent survey by ‘Age of Majority’ identified three particular stereotypes portrayed in advertising that especially angered older people; first a lack of ability to use technology, secondly physical weakness and thirdly mental inferiority. This was echoed in interviews I conducted last year in the UK. As one woman put it: “If you were stupid when young you’ll probably be stupid when you are old, but if you weren't stupid when young, why should people assume you're going to be stupid just because you are older?”.

A 2021 AARP survey, again in the United States, showed that 62% of people aged 55+ wished that advertising had more realistic images of people ‘my age’ and 47% felt that advertising showing people of ‘my age’ reinforced outdated stereotypes.

These stereotypes impact on how younger people behave towards us. Women complain that they suddenly become invisible. As one person I spoke to put it: “Do they just see white hair now and don't see anything else?” Another added: “I think there is a sort of invisibility and it is very difficult to deal with”. Men tend not to feel invisible but they do experience an assumption of diminished ability and dislike how they are patronised when behaving normally. As another of my interviewees said: “When I was in my sixties I used to do a bit of running and the girls in the office used to say ‘oh you are so good for your age, aren't you?’, and I’d just think ‘am I? Why? What's age got to do with it?’”.

As a ‘third ager’ myself, I hate the stereotypical way in which older people are portrayed in the media; passive, uncertain, baffled by the modern world, needing assistance, whose recreational activities are playing cards, sitting down and having cups of tea with their equally passive friends or devotedly minding the grandchildren. The reality is that we have active lives and are more likely to go skiing or play golf than sit at home playing board games.

My advice, therefore, to contemporaries who are about to have dealings with the NHS?

Never let the nurses believe you are ‘retired’ whether you are or not. Always be clear that you still ‘work’. That is what I did, and in an instant I was a real person again and at last their conversation became adult to adult.

Written by Chris Stride

Contributing columnist for A3A Agency for the Third Age

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