The day after a general election is, perhaps, a good time to reflect on representation. No segment of the population of these islands is more familiar with how contentious a topic representation can be than those of us who live in Northern Ireland. To represent means to reflect positively and/or to provide a sincere portrayal of others. When it comes to ageing, too often, we are faced, not with representations, but with stereotypes. In planning the launch of BSG in Northern Ireland, our mission was to bring social gerontology to a new audience. This caused us to think carefully about what image we wanted to represent. Our plan emerged quite simply: to use the instinctive human gravitational pull towards the arts to illuminate old age as a new frontier for creative and scientific discovery.
And so, the BSG in Northern Ireland was launched in style on Wednesday 21 April, 2015 under the banner ‘Representing Age’. A fully booked event took place in the romantic and inspiring setting of MacNeice House, a grand Victorian Building on Belfast’s leafy Malone Road and home of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland (www.artscouncil-ni.org.uk). Aided and abetted by Lorraine Calderwood, head of the Arts & Older People programme the BSG team pulled off a vibrant and colourful display of costumes and hats from across the ages (kindly provided by a local theatre group). Forty guests enjoyed afternoon tea around a grand dining table decorated with vintage china. Participants from every age cohort, walk of life and profession, from health and social care workers, to academics, museum curators and third sector campaigners, were brought together by a shared interest in research on ageing.
Thought-provoking presentations were delivered by keynote speakers: Julia Twigg, University of Kent (http://www.clothingandage.org/) and Maeve Rea from Queens University Belfast. Twigg drew on her body of work, notably Fashion and Age: Dress the Body and Later Life, to explore concepts such as embodied personhood and the rise of cultural gerontology. Rea then shared findings from research with nonagenarian siblings in her book and photographic exhibition – Super Vivere: Reflections on Long Life and Ageing Well (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Super-Vivere-Reflections-Long-Ageing/dp/0856408662). Rea’s research fused together epigenetics and qualitative interviews with photographic portraits of participants taken by Rea’s daughter, acclaimed photographer Susie. Rea’s presentation was concluded with some key public health messages extracted from the research to support ageing well.
Such was the quality of engagement and positivity that we hardly needed an evaluation to know that the BSG in Northern Ireland was well and truly launched that day. Feedback from those who attended was overwhelmingly positive: 95% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the event increased their interest in the social study of age, 82% made new connections at the event, while 75% of respondents were interested in joining the BSG as a result of attending the launch. Why did this event prove so engaging?
For one reason, it made us think. ‘Representing Age’ made all of us think about the many and varied ways in which ageing and older people are represented. Old age can be difficult. It can be a mine field of health scares, bereavements and shifting family dynamics. Twigg’s work reminds us that fashion can add levity and renewal to a period of life too often represented as aesthetically redundant. The stunning setting of MacNeice House, also reminded us of what the Arts can offer pioneers of longevity. Current and future generations of Super Viveres do not see art as a just a ‘pass time’ in retirement; rather, they occupy the artistic sphere as a site for invigoration, inspiration and even activism.
The voices and images of nonagenarians presented in Rea’s work made us think about how best to spend the extra years gifted by longevity. How will I be when I am that age? How will I represent old age? Rea’s Super Viveres are pioneers of long life, representing old age as a period of life to be celebrated and shared. Most of all, they show us that to age is to be truly human; ageing is something of which we should all be proud.
Returning to a duller post-election afternoon, one wonders what advice the Super Viveres might offer the many ousted representatives and would-be candidates of Election 2015? One imagines their advice would be something along the lines of ‘this too shall pass’ and ‘in the greater scheme of things this will not matter so much.’ Such advice would have been learned from a long life of experiencing failure and surviving, even thriving as a result.
To live a long life is one of the greatest achievements of being human. This incredible truth is oft forgotten in the thrusting, youth-driven world of the twenty-first century. Longevity on a mass scale is not a problem. It is how we represent ageing and older people that is problematic. Misrepresentation of what it means to be old leads to the construction of negative stereotypes, ageist rhetoric and, ultimately, poverty and disadvantage in old age.
Buoyed up by the support and enthusiasm of everyone who supported the launch of the BSG in Northern Ireland, we will continue to challenge negative stereotypes of ageing. Representing Age will provide a focus for the work of the BSG in Northern Ireland for many years to come.
Thanks to the BSG Small Events grant for financing this launch event and to Lorraine and the team at the Arts Council for helping us to transform an academic seminar into a memorable event.
By Gemma Carney, Mabel Stevenson, Paula Devine and Lynn Johnston.
May 9, 2015.
Founding members of BSG in Northern Ireland.