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The Leveson Centre for the study of Ageing, Spirituality and Social Policy
 

Age Discrimination - a new loneliness

Margaret Simey who died in 2004 was a social scientist. Her published work includes Government by Consent (Bedford Square Press, 1985) and Democracy Rediscovered (Pluto, 1988). This article is reproduced with permission from Age Today Issue 1, Spring 2002 published by Help the Aged. For details e-mail info@helptheaged.org.uk

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A journalist, apologising for her long silence since she last called me, once said: 'To tell the truth, I had thought that you must … ' She halted in the nick of time. I laughed off her embarrassment with the assurance that I wasn't dead yet. But it rankled. I'm tired of being the subject of other people's assumptions about the state I'm in. In practice, do they really constitute discrimination against me and my kind?

One thing is for certain: old people like myself are almost universally aware of the fact that we are somehow different, simply by virtue of our age. We are no longer 'one of them'. We are a problem, a burden, objects of pity and denied any role in the management of our affairs. It is assumed that by the time we reach the arbitrary age of 60, we are universally old, worn out with toil and poverty-stricken.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Take my own case - and I am not a rare exception. I continued to live an exceptionally active life as a local councillor and voluntary worker into my 90s. I own my own house, am comfortably off, and have excellent support from family and friends. But what is it about our allocation to the ranks of the dependent that is so deeply wounding? Is it just that our own pride is offended or is it something much more fundamental?

My eyes were opened when kind but misguided well-wishers organised a surprise birthday party for me when I reached the age of 90. Until then, I had been as active as any of them, deeply involved in voluntary work, committee meetings and consultations. Suddenly, it occurred to them, as it did to me, that I was old.

The transformation was stunning. I was no longer one of them. I was an outsider. I seemed to be in a foreign country. I didn't speak the language. I didn't know the rules. I was no longer me, Margaret, very defiantly my own person. Now I was simply one of a mass of clones, a stereotype, a number, not an individual. I was old and that was all that needed to be said.

A thousand tiny incidents suddenly took on new significance. A trip over a pavement resulted in a slightly damaged hipbone. It was decided it didn't merit an operation. When I queried who had authorised the decision, answer came there none. Presumably, it was assumed that at my age life wouldn't be worth living anyway. When the case conference was arranged to decide whether I was ready to go home, I was not invited. (They decided it was too soon, but I went home anyway and led as busy and active a life as ever.)

What does it feel like to be excluded like this from responsibility for my own life? I experienced a totally new sense of loneliness, not because I lack for company, but because I am no longer one of them. This new loneliness is a novel phenomenon of our age; it spans all generations as unemployment creeps on. But it is particularly hard to bear on top of the tribulations of age. Like balloons filled with gas but cut off from any solid base, we float aimlessly. It is a denial of our need to belong, to have the security of a slot in society, however minuscule.

I believe that the need to belong to some group is a fundamental human necessity that is the glue that binds a community together. We have to believe that we have some worth, some right to a place in the life of the community. That is our human heritage. Deny us that and we - and the community to which we belong - must surely perish.

Margaret Simey

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