Life Mental Health

Monday 26 September 2016

New breed of over 60s who dance to 'forever young'

Published 05/04/2016 | 02:30

Role model: Helen Mirren.
Role model: Helen Mirren.

A recent newspaper article caught my eye. It was reporting a new study, published online on February 25 in the Journal of Advanced Nursing that examined the content of popular songs and how they depict ageing. This is an important area for study since the number of people over 65 is predicted to increase worldwide from over 500 million in 2010 to 1.5 billion by 2050. So examining the ageing experience and the factors influencing it is a fruitful area for study.

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Depictions of the multiple aspects of life can have a powerful impact on those involved and on cultural attitudes as a whole. These images may be conveyed, among other ways, through drama, poetry, art and of course in song. Since music is such a dominant part of everyday life, the possibility that the words themselves may influence how older people view themselves and are viewed by others is a legitimate consideration. The starting point is to actually examine the content of the songs themselves to establish how they portray those who are ageing.

The lead author was Jacinta Kelly from Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge. She and her team analysed the images of ageing conveyed in 76 popular songs. They selected songs that were in the English language and specifically related to ageing, covering the period 1930 to the present. A variety of genres were chosen and the most common were rock (40pc) and pop (27pc). Most were produced in the US and Britain and they were a mixture of soothing and energetic. Of these, 55 were negative and 21 positive in the images they created.

The negative representations had three themes - how they were viewed (pitiful, ugly, boring, vulnerable), the feelings the words suggested (fear, ignored, loneliness, unwanted) and the changes they described (frailty, confusion, death, loss) while the positive themes identified contentedness (optimism, admiration, respect) and esteem (wisdom, reminiscence and otherness).

Examples of the songs with negative themes are Kris Kristofferson's Feeling Mortal: "That old man there in a dream. And my shaky self-esteem. Here today and gone tomorrow. That's the way it's got to be" or the Beatles' When I'm Sixty Four: "When I get older. Losing my hair. Many years from now…. Will you still need me? Will you still feed me? When I'm sixty four" or The Oldest Swinger in Town: "When you walk into a disco and they offer you a seat. You're the oldest swinger in town".

By contrast the positively themed songs include Dusty Springfield's Going Back: "But thinking young and growing old is no sin and I can play the game of life to win" or Bob Dylan's Forever Young: "May your hands always be busy. May your feet always be swift. May you have a strong foundation, when the winds of changes shift. May your heart be always joyful. And may your song always be sung. May you stay forever young".

The next question is whether these undoubtedly negative perspectives on ageing actually penetrate the psyche of the population and influence views on growing old and, if so, how? This question has yet to be answered but another story in a newspaper caused me to pause optimistically. The striking headline "Why Old Age Starts at 85" was followed by a description of a study carried out by the Royal Voluntary Society. I did not have access to the actual study so I cannot comment on its methods or quality but its findings backed up data from Public Health England. What the Royal Voluntary Society study found was that people no longer regard themselves as elderly at 65. They look to role models like Helen Mirren, Kate Adie and Dolly Parton who are all 70 years old. But there are others who are even older and still in the public eye including Mary Berry and Judy Dench, both in their 80s, while the philosopher Noam Chomsky is 87 and Pope Francis is 79.

Not only do the current generation of those over 60 see themselves as still young, one in nine of those between 60 and 69 do not view old age as beginning until 90! Those between 65 and 79 also have higher life-satisfaction rating, greater than those in their 40s and 50s. They also see retirement as providing opportunities they never had before to travel, volunteer, keep fit, do new things and spend time with family and friends.

Take whichever perspective you wish, but I'm sure we all hope that the images portrayed in the songs are just that - fantasy in the fertile imagination of the writer while in the real world we get on with living life to the full into ripe old age.

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