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United Nations: AgeingMeanings and Images in an Ageing Society

Updated Friday, October 1, 2010
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Meanings and Images in an Ageing Society

Images of ageing are rooted in culture and cut right to the marrow of the society in which we live. However, the understanding of one's language and culture can very often contrast with the meanings and images given it by others. This paradox also mimics ageing in advanced societies, where, with the accumulation of years and experience, roles diminish, and images play a part.

Mass media, the machine of image-making, is also a link in the globalization chain, and can have profound effects on the developing world, and particularly on the older women who live there. For its part, the flow and interchange of ideas and information through new technologies is as much an extraordinary achievement as it is an ordinary fact of life. The positive impact that is gained from other ideas, learning about other populations, areas of expertise, and alternative ways of life is boundless. But knowledge and images are often mutual passengers in the information voyage and the image landscape conveyed by the western media weighs heavily on the side of glorifying youth, while either omitting older persons or depicting them in stereotypes. This has a particular impact on the lives of older women, as they tend to suffer greater political, social, and economic exclusion than do older men.

As society ages however, it also changes in ways that relate to age. Perceptions of the transitions that mark the boundaries of age are being altered as family, kinship and community structures change. In many parts of the world it is not uncommon today to be part of a four-generation family, where the chronological rules for assuming the roles of grandparents or grandchildren are increasingly blurred. At the same time, more individuals are growing older outside of traditional family networks and are simulating family life through communities or primary groups. The rhythm of the life cycle continues to develop through these different dynamics and, consequently, is not as tightly bound by chronological age or stages as it once may have been.

The same can be said for images that surround the idea of change. While change often arouses anxiety, challenges that stem from new orders of complexity should be met with inquiry rather than reproach. Situations or choices that once seemed incompatible, work or retirement, strength or vulnerability, can be approached and accommodated within the same creative mix that occupies the vastness and diversity of life in the human community.

The new architecture of ageing requires policies that remove obstacles and facilitate contributions. It also requires seminal thinking and images that reflect reality and potential, not stereotypes and myths. So relative are the experiences of ageing in different parts of the world, and so complex and multiple their roles, that the world can no longer accept images of ageing as a panorama of near homogeneity.


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