Is age really just a number?

digitalassist2016This Saturday (1 October) is the International Day of Older Persons: a chance for us to celebrate the contributions that older people make to our society, economy, and modern life. It got me thinking about how this is an opportunity to challenge the stereotypes often asserted towards ageing. This year’s theme is “Take a Stand Against Ageism.”

Given the blowback proliferated by some sections of the press, and by social media, in the aftermath of this year’s EU referendum – and resulting Brexit vote – a challenge of these negative stereotypes and a stand against ageism seems more important than ever. Following the vote to leave the EU, commentators from across various media platforms bemoaned the impact that older voters had on the result, by swinging it in favour of the ‘Leave camp’ and thus depriving the younger generation of the privileges of EU membership. Many of them held a steadfast belief that the result was swung by the belligerent votes of an insular, older demographic – never mind the near 30% of voters who didn’t even turn out to vote (the majority of whom were younger voters).

A lot of the rhetoric highlighted a hackneyed stereotype of older people as being self-serving ‘Baby Boomers’ who had enjoyed easy access to housing, jobs, and financial security and who were now hanging the younger generation out to dry. Among many of the unpleasant sentiments, there was even the suggestion – from some social media commentators – that there should be upper age limits on voters. While much of this sentiment can be shrugged off as impulsive, it still highlights a concerning perception of older people that would be deemed totally unacceptable if it were based on race, religion, or sex.

It’s reassuring then to know that there is plenty of work being done to challenge these preconceptions of older people – lots of it on our own doorstep in Northern Ireland. During October, Belfast City Council will be celebrating Positive Ageing Month. Now in its second year, it’s a month-long festival of events and activities for older people that celebrates the contribution older people make to their communities and to the city of Belfast.

Following on from the success of the Silver Surfer IT training sessions (celebrating 13 years in 2016!), which took place in libraries across Northern Ireland earlier in the year, the Digital Assist programme of training events continues to engage with, and develop essential skills for, older people. Taking place in community centres across Belfast throughout September and October, these deliver sessions to participants on everything from social media to online banking – equipping them with the basic skills to stay connected to friends and family, to save money, or even to learn a new skill online.

These sort of initiatives reaffirm the adage that you’re never too old to continue learning or to pick up new skills. Nor, for that matter, are you too old to share the skills you already have.

In a recent article for the Belfast Telegraph, Stephanie Bell highlighted the benefits of volunteering and how new research has revealed that volunteers are healthier and have a greater life expectancy. Indeed, the retirees who volunteer on Business in the Community programmes – such as Digital Assist and Time to Read – are testament to this. At Business in the Community, we are always keen to welcome new volunteers into these programmes, so if you have time to spare and would like to help support our work through volunteering, we would love to hear from you.

So, whether you see yourself as a Charles Eugster or simply want to hone up on your IT skills, the old adage of not being able to teach an old dog new tricks seems less and less accurate.