Time to honour those defying age stereotypes

IT’S time to honour those who defy the stereotype of growing older and offer an inspiring example to others, says Katrina Coutts.
Television shows and celebrities provide examples that age is only a number. Picture: BBCTelevision shows and celebrities provide examples that age is only a number. Picture: BBC
Television shows and celebrities provide examples that age is only a number. Picture: BBC

Whether it’s winning the Great British Bake Off in front of 12 million viewers, or publishing a first novel at the age of 81, Nancy Birtwhistle and Sheila Hancock have shown that later life can be a time to embrace new challenges.

You don’t have to look far to find inspirational examples of men and women well into later life who are defying outdated stereotypes. On average people are working longer than ever before, resulting in diverse workforces, and an increasing number see retirement as a chance to take a new direction in life – whether that’s returning to studying, writing a play, or starting a campaign group.

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This month, our Age Scotland Awards at the Scottish Parliament, provided a great opportunity to celebrate the contributions older people make to our society.

Our Volunteer of the Year award winner, Andy MacDowell, 82 could make even the fittest of us feel exhausted by his activities and community involvement in Argyll. Despite suffering from profound hearing loss and awaiting a hip operation, he volunteers as a driver for the local Soup Group and Frail Walking Group, does heavy gardening work, sets up lunches, chairs Oban in Bloom and runs local workshops. He might not be a household name like Sheila and Nancy, but community groups around Scotland rely on the efforts and passion of older volunteers like Andy.

Too often, the depictions of older people in our newspapers and on our TV screens focus on older people as purely users of services, and recipients of care. Of course, later life can bring challenges and changing circumstances, and Age Scotland works hard to help older people with everything from care and money management advice, to projects aimed at reducing loneliness. But via our work, it never ceases to amaze me the positive stories that are out there, whether that’s a lady logging on to Facebook for the first time at 114, or still turning out in your rugby kit well into your 80s.

Our awards reflected just some of the contributions made by and for older people in Scotland. They ranged from a Clackmannanshire campaign group, fighting to preserve access to local health services, to the Inverness-based Singing for Pleasure group, who have performed everywhere from theatres and castles to BBC primetime TV.

And this month Luminate, Scotland’s creative ageing festival, is shining a spotlight on creative activities produced by or featuring older people around Scotland. Luminate’s core message is that “creativity has no age”, whether that’s dance workshops, plays, slam poetry or art installations.

Now in its third year, Luminate is bigger than ever, with events in every part of the country. Supported by Creative Scotland, the Baring Foundation and Age Scotland, it includes new work, collaborations and international projects specially planned and programmed for the festival, as well as independently-run projects led by cultural and community organisations.

A quick look through the programme shows the diversity of the festival. Events include Portraits of Experience, a photography exhibition by award-winning artist Alex Boyd at the Scottish Maritime Museum, and Love Letters Straight from the Heart, a theatrical performance described as somewhere between a wedding reception, a wake and a radio dedication show. Arts lovers have been able to enjoy films, classical concerts, poetry and sketching workshops and more.

Not only are these events great entertainment at any age, but there’s growing evidence that creative activities can improve our wellbeing throughout our lives.

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Luminate also highlights the artistic and cultural opportunities that exist in Scotland. As well as its public programme, outreach activities take the festival into care homes, sheltered housing communities and local groups.

Some of the works featured this year tackled difficult subjects such as how to care for Scotland’s ageing population and the impact of dementia on people’s lives.

But the overall focus of the festival is an uplifting one, celebrating the achievements of people in their later lives. Since Luminate was set up, it’s widened its reach, resulting in international collaborations as well as work with other festivals and community groups. Like the Age Scotland awards, it challenges many of our preconceptions about older people and shows the increasing role they play in all parts of society.

We can all be guilty of carrying around stereotypes. But I for one am pleased to know that I can expect to live longer than generations gone before and I certainly hope to make the most of it.

• Katrina Coutts is communications & marketing manager of Age Scotland