Social attitudes

Ageing is frequently perceived as a process of decline rather than a stage of life that can have benefits. Anthropologist Neil Thin points out that even saying "I don't feel old" implies that 'feeling old' is a bad thing.

Negative stereotypes can lead to discrimination, which impacts on health and wellbeing, especially in high income countries where we find the lowest levels of respect. A study of over 7700 people aged over 50 suggested that those who believe they had been discriminated against because of their age had a higher incidence of illness including coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and depressive symptoms15.

Stereotypes about the elderly are not uniformly negative. In some societies, older people attain leadership positions where their wisdom and emotional stability are valued by others in the community who seek their advice, especially in resolving conflict. In Native American society the term 'elder' refers to a leadership position acquired through experience and contribution to the community, rather than age. In 2007, recognising the potential of this idea, businessman Richard Branson and musician Peter Gabriel persuaded Nelson Mandela to found 'The Elders', a group of independent global leaders working together to promote world peace.

There are many examples of elderly people in our communities making a positive difference in the world.

Zimbabwean psychiatrist Dixon Chibanda and colleagues realised that the elderly were an untapped community resource that could be used to support people struggling with mental health difficulties such as depression. They set up 'The Friendship Bench' where grandmothers, who have been given training, deliver free basic talking therapy to those in need. In 2017, the Friendship Bench helped over 30,000 people. The approach has been shown to be more effective in some instances than standard treatment16.


What difference would it make if there were a group of Elders in your community available for advice and support?

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