Tackle negative stereotypes of later life with free-to-use photos.
For too long, both verbal and visual language have been used to dehumanise older people and depict ageing in a negative light. These attitudes to ageing have been brought sharply to light by the pandemic, with suggestions that older people’s lives are ‘less valuable’ than the young, or that a ‘cull’ of the elderly could be a good outcome of the crisis.
These are the most extreme examples, but the association of old age with frailty and decline – and the belief that older people are a burden on society – are deeply ingrained in the language we use to talk about age and ageing. And perhaps just as influential as language is the imagery we see, and the ways older people are represented visually in the media.
Stock image websites host a plethora of photos that are, quite frankly, outdated and deeply rooted in harmful stereotypes. They range from one extreme to another: from a glossy image of an affluent older person relaxing on a cruise ship, to a pair of ‘wrinkly hands’ gripping a walking stick.
“When people search for age-related images, they shouldn’t be served up lazy stereotypes”
This phenomenon isn’t new, nor is it limited to image libraries. There’s a dearth of realistic photographs on news websites and in magazines when older people are the focus of the story or advert. Stories that reference older people are often illustrated with images that ignore any of the person’s qualities beyond their wrinkles.
There’s of course nothing inherently negative about wrinkles or walking sticks – except for the fact that these tropes have become synonymous with older people and reinforce negative stereotypes. Around 3.3 million people in the UK are aged 80 and over with a huge diversity of abilities, interests and backgrounds. And yet, the images we see of older people don’t represent that diversity.
Look at the photos in these image libraries and ask yourself how accurately do they represent you or older people you live with, work with or meet in your community? As normal as it is (at least when we are not in lockdown) for people aged 65 and over to be active in communities – whether through voluntary activity or employment – image libraries seem disinterested in these activities.
When people search for age-related images, they shouldn’t be served up lazy stereotypes. They should be able to access a wide range of images that realistically and positively represent the diversity of people in later life; not as a group of people that are defined by their age and society’s outdated attitudes.
So we at the Centre for Ageing Better decided to do something about it. We’ve launched a free image library, containing more than 400 images of older people in a range of settings, showcasing the vibrancy and diversity of later life. We’ve also put together a simple guide that lays out some basic tips to consider when commissioning work or capturing photographs, so that other organisations can follow suit.
With more of us set to live for much longer than previous generations, it’s time we tackled our negative view of ageing. Simple steps – like thinking more carefully about the images we use – will play a huge part in this shift.