Simon Stephens, Issue 117/03, p4, 01.03.2017
Treat the elderly as you would any other group
What does it mean to be old in today’s society? The media often portray the negative sides of ageing, such as ill-health and the challenges of providing social care. But beyond the headlines, the picture is far more complex, with little agreement on where old age even starts. Is it 50, 60 or older?

One thing is for sure: life expectancy will continue to rise, and this is changing the UK economically, socially and politically. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that there were 1.5 million people aged 85 and over living in the UK in 2014. This is expected to increase to 3.6 million by 2039, when nearly a quarter of the population will be aged 65-plus.

The ageing population, however that is defined, is becoming increasingly diverse. For museums, this creates challenges in catering for the huge range of needs, interests and views that older audiences represent; and opportunities to engage a growing group of people in new and exciting ways.

There is certainly a case for ageing to be viewed more positively. Museums have been developing groundbreaking initiatives to support those suffering from dementia, as well as their carers. But while many people will experience some form of dementia as they get older, millions of others will be unaffected. And, more generally, a degree of physical and mental decline won’t prevent huge numbers of people living active and enjoyable lives in their later years.

One of the big challenges is not to do with the effects of growing old, but a disconnection between people’s perceptions of ageing and the actual reality. Ageism is often the problem, not age.

Museums should treat older people as inclusively and fairly as other groups. Above all, they should not fall into the trap of seeing them as a homogenous group.

The future relationship between museums and their audiences, including older visitors, will be explored at a Museums Association event at the Wellcome Collection on 29 March (see p15).

Speakers will include a neuropsychologist and a member of the Age Friendly Museums Network. Families, young people and diverse groups will be among the other audiences that will be discussed. It’s shaping up to be a fascinating event – it would be great to see some of you there.