It’s a cliche, but science supports the idea that you’re only as old as you feel.
When it comes to the fusty cobweb of older age John Gaden’s new mantra could well be “shake it off”. At 73 the actor has taken on the role of Mike, a slightly aggro, sexually conflicted teen in the play Seventeen at Sydney’s Belvoir Street theatre. It’s a rite of passage story that sees a cast of iconic, silver-haired Aussie actors, including Barry Otto and Maggie Dence, get into the skins of a bunch of 17 year olds celebrating their last day at school.
Gaden usually tunes in to Classic FM but when songstress Taylor Swift tweeted a sensational “OK” for Belvoir to play Shake It Off in the closing scene, the veteran’s hips were destined to gyrate to a faster beat. Via Skype Gaden jokes, “I wouldn’t recommend dancing to Taylor Swift if you have knee or back problems”.
Physical preparation for the role included thrice-weekly visits to the gym and the mental hurdles have been formidable too, and not limited to entering the tortured labyrinth of the teen psyche. Gaden says wryly, but with discernible relief that, “nobody has expressed disgust at seeing elderly people dancing about”.
It seems even this metier, where becoming someone else is part of the job description, is vulnerable to negative stereotypes about older people.
Fact or Fiction, a 2013 report by the Australian Human Rights Commission, found the media frequently saddle older Australians with epithets like forgetful, slow, frail, and burden. More than a third of Australians aged 55-64 reported age-related discrimination such as being ignored, joked about or turned down for a job, and many cast themselves as worthless, sad, angry or useless.
It wasn’t always so. In February Yale University researchers published a gargantuan linguistic analysis of 100,000 texts dating back two hundred years. They looked at what terms clustered near the word “elderly” or one of its synonyms and found attitudes took a dive around 1880 when words like “stamina” gave way to “sick”. The authors reasoned longer life spans delivered a rise in chronic illness that saw the elderly morph from ordinary people into “patients” with their attendant woes.
At the heart of most stereotypes is a kernel of truth and older people do, of course, swell the ranks of the ailing.
But while some struggle to reach the toilet after a stroke others will number in the 10,000 plus athletes, many in their seventies and eighties, limbering up for the Adelaide Masters Games in October.
As the age-quake rumbles louder – the 2015 Intergenerational Report predicts the proportion of Australians over 65 will double by 2055 – those holding the purse strings for aged care should pay attention to a particular strand of research. It finds that negative stereotypes are self-fulfilling; they generate the infirmity upon which they are falsely premised.
Read the full feature at the Age newspaper here