For too long, both verbal and visual language have been used to dehumanise older people and to depict ageing in a negative light. Such attitudes to ageing have been brought to light by the pandemic, with suggestions that older people’s lives are ‘less valuable’ than the young, or that a ‘cull’ of the elderly could be a good outcome.
These are the most extreme examples, but the association of old age with frailty and decline – and the belief that older people are a burden on society – are deeply ingrained in the language we use to talk about ageing. And perhaps just as influential as language is the imagery we see, and the ways older people are represented visually.
Stock image websites are filled with photos that are outdated and deeply rooted in harmful stereotypes. They range from one extreme to another: from a glossy image of an affluent older person relaxing on a cruise ship, to a pair of 'wrinkly hands' gripping a walking stick.
This phenomenon isn't new, nor is it limited to image libraries. There's a real shortage of realistic photographs on many websites and in magazines when older people are the focus of the story or advert. Stories that reference older people are often illustrated with images that ignore any of the person’s qualities beyond their wrinkles.
There's of course nothing intrinsically negative about wrinkles or walking sticks – except for the fact that these tropes have become synonymous with older people and reinforce stereotypes. Around 3.3 million people in the UK are aged 80 and over, with a huge diversity of abilities, interests and backgrounds. And yet, the images we see of older people don’t do these justice.
Look at the photos in images libraries and ask yourself how accurately do they represent you or older people you live with, work with or meet in your community? As normal as it is for people aged 65 and over to be active in communities – whether through voluntary activity or employment – image libraries seem disinterested in these activities. Instead they seem set on portraying residents of care homes, when in fact more than 90% of people aged 65 and over live in mainstream housing. Or alternatively, they often seem to think that an older person is only worth photographing if they are skydiving or have run a marathon – undoubtedly a wonderful achievement but perhaps not one that sets a realistic expectation of what healthy ageing looks like.
When we search for age-related images, we shouldn't be served up lazy stereotypes.
When we search for age-related images, we shouldn't be served up lazy stereotypes. We should be able to find a range of images that realistically and positively represent the diversity of people in later life – not as a group of people that are defined by their age and society's outdated attitudes.
So we at the Centre for Ageing Better decided to do something about this. We’ve launched a free image library, containing over 400 photos of older people in a range of settings, showcasing the vibrancy and diversity of later life. We’ve also put together a simple guide that lays out some basic tips to consider when commissioning work or capturing photographs.
The launch of the new resource follows Ageing Better's work on ageism, including a recent report, ‘An old age problem?’, which looked at depictions of later life across society. The report recommends that in both words and pictures, media and charities should communicate a more diverse representation of what it means to be older and move away from harmful stereotypes.
With more of us set to live for many years longer than previous generations, it’s time we tackled our negative view of ageing. Simple steps – like thinking more carefully about the images we use – will play a huge part in this shift.
You can view the image library here.