What does old age look like?

Heating up the sauna is no longer considered dynamic enough. You should rather travel to Italy and take an oil painting course. A new presumption of activity has come out.

The imagery used by the media shapes society and even affects the health of older people.

The way the media portray older people actually influences older people themselves. Research has shown that negative stereotypes may even have physical effects on elderly people.

“People who feel like they are the target of negative age perceptions are in worse health, have higher blood pressure and also die younger, among other things,” says research coordinator Kirsi Lumme-Sandt of the Gerontology Research Center (GEREC) at the University of Tampere.

Lumme-Sandt has studied changes in the image of older people in Finnish print media from the mid 1990s to 2016. She examined the ET-Lehti magazine and Helsingin Sanomat and Aamulehti newspapers.

By looking at how old age is framed in the stories of ET-Lehti, a magazine aimed at the 50+ demographic, Lumme-Sandt looks at “what is possible, and what an older person should be like,” she says.

A clear change has occurred in the past twenty years. In 1996, the magazine wrote a lot about retirement, especially from the perspective that it is a period of serene freedom.

“Heating up the sauna, splitting firewood and fishing were deemed sufficient activities for pensioners. The perspective was on doing nothing as an earned right,” Lumme-Sandt explains.

Later, the entire theme of retirement almost completely disappeared from the magazine, as a new presumption of activity – presented in a way that it is more like a requirement – has taken its place.

“In 2016, the magazine published a couple of series of stories that were about how older people had taken up new hobbies and found new beginnings. For example, someone had started ski jumping at the age of 69,” Lumme-Sandt says.

Older people have thus gone from fishing to extreme sports. The message is that no matter how old you are, you can do whatever you want: age is no limit.

“There are a lot of positive sides to this. Old age has been freed from the limited expectations that were imposed on it earlier. Nowadays, an older person can be anything. However, there is a flipside to this. What if you would simply like to fish and heat up the sauna? It is no longer considered dynamic enough. You should rather travel to Italy and take an oil painting course. This kind of continuous requirement to be active can also be tiring,” Lumme-Sandt points out.

Another major change has been the increase in the number of stories on relationships. In the 1990s, the topic was covered with a few stories on widowhood, whereas nowadays older people are reminded that they can find new happiness at any age.

“There are a lot of relationship articles in general. The magazine publishes stories about long relationships and finding a new spark in old ones,” Lumme-Sandt says.

This aspect too has a flipside. On the one hand, it is great that people have the permission to fall in love and start new relationships at a more advanced age.

“At the same time, however, the stories create a certain pressure to find a partner. It is a fact that there are more older women than there are men. Not all older women can start a relationship even if they wanted to,” Lumme-Sandt notes.

According to Lumme-Sandt, ET-Lehti portrays older people in a variety of roles, whereas the newspapers portray them in roughly two ways. On the one hand, they are discussed as a faceless mass that is poorly taken care of and distorting the dependency ratio in society. These news stories are almost exclusively negative, and the elderly are portrayed as a societal problem. The other type of story involves a more or less heroic individual, a supergrandpa or supergranny. Well-known examples include interviews with Aira Samulin, a Finnish celebrity who is in her nineties, and birthday interviews with other active older people.

“These stories emphasise activity – that you should not stay put,” Lumme-Sandt says.

Additionally, older women are portrayed in three ways. In letters to the editor, people open up about mean, old women who jump the queue and are unpleasant in other ways as well. Then there are the sweet, old ladies, for example the reporters’ grannies who are written about fondly. The third portrayal in essence has nothing to do with women; rather objects in this category are referred to with the prefix mummo, meaning “granny”.

“For example, granny pants sound negative and uncool. There’s no talk about ‘grandpa underwear’,” Lumme-Sandt points out.

Old age is thus still not fully free of expectations and stereotypes, even though people over sixty are no longer condemned to the rocking chair. This assumption has been replaced by an expectation of pursuing new activities and a love life. However, some negative connotations persist.

In Lumme-Sandt’s view, the image of old age has taken leaps forward.

“People are not defined as ‘elderly’ only because they are a certain age. Age and ageing are being addressed in more neutral ways. Regardless, there is still a lot to be done,” she says.

Things must improve, not only because individuals need positive images of old age that they can relate to, but also because the way the media address these issues has a bearing on how older people and old age are approached by society as a whole.

“Over a quarter of Finns have already turned sixty-five. If they are portrayed in a negative light or if they are not even visible in the media to begin with, their needs will not be acknowledged as society moves forward. They are easy to ignore, but a quarter of the population is a very large group to be disregarded,” Lumme-Sandt argues.

Text: Hanna Hyvärinen
Photograph: Jonne Renvall
Translation: Sanni Irjala