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Media needs to show the positive sides of ageing

It was revealed recently that ITV executive Peter Fincham believes that it’s the older age group who drive television viewing figures, and programming should reflect that fact. 54% of BBC1 viewers are over the age of 55 and BBC2’s older audience is even bigger.

Does this mean an end to the plethora of reality shows that promote the careers of wannabes of dubious talent in favour of more programming using older actors along the lines of Last Tango in Halifax? Probably not, but a real change is required to embrace the needs of an ageing population.

Despite the late rise of Mary Berry and her ilk, there are still too few older people on our TV screens that promote a positive image of older age. Older people are still often portrayed as a burden on society and often the phrase “demographic time bomb” is used to describe the situation we find ourselves in. Society needs to move away from the negative and look to the positive side of having more healthy, older people in society. Current programmes like “Protecting Our Parents” can play an important role in highlighting issues around health and social care for older people. But many older people have valuable skills and experience to offer. “Amazing Greys” taps into this light entertainment aspect but will it change attitudes? Record numbers of older people are still in employment and many spend time in formal and informal volunteering roles. The media has a duty to reflect this reality.

While watching the Summer Olympics and Paralympics in 2012 and this year’s Winter equivalents and various world championships, I was struck by the thought that we never see older people competing in sport at top level. Disabled sport has come a long way since the first Stoke Mandeville Games in 1948. Now able bodied and disabled athletes compete at the same venues around the same time and receive media coverage. Athletes like David Weir and Ellie Simmons, to name but two, are household names and as famous as their able bodied counterparts for their athletic abilities, and that is the way it should be.

But where are the older athletes? Just because you reach a certain age it doesn’t mean that you automatically hang up your spikes and become a fully paid up member of the pipe and slippers brigade. Those athletes are still out there, enjoying it and competing still at a pretty impressive level. The unfortunate thing is that their stories are ignored and we never get to see or hear about them.

But they are out there in numbers. In last year’s World Masters Track and Field Championships in Brazil, whilst Great Britain’s Stephen Peters completed an impressive double gold in the 100 and 200 metres (timed at 12.03secs and 24.21secs respectively) for the M60 age group, Jill Harrison won three gold medals at 1,500, 5,000 and 10,000 metres in the W55 category. This is a fantastic achievement that would have made headline news if in mainstream athletics.

Just a few weeks ago at the end of March, the World Masters Indoor Championships took place in Budapest. There, Alan Mellet, one of several GB medalists, took the M80 200 metres title in an incredible 34.16 seconds.

I expect that it took many years of hard work behind the scenes by various communities to persuade the media to give air time to paralympians like sprinter Johnny Peacock, and there is still more to be done. How long before we see images in newspapers and on television of older people not behaving as society thinks that they do, but reflect the extraordinary things they do every day? How long before we see the likes of Jill Harrison alongside Jessica Ennis-Hill and Hannah Crockcroft?

Posted by Steve Smith, Royal Voluntary Service Public Affairs Manager (England) at 00:00 Wednesday, 30 April 2014.

Labels: television, media, ageing, older people

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