What age is old? How does our perception of 'old age' change?

What age is ‘old’?

Posted on July 25, 2016 by Eleanor McKenzie
Happy lady on a beach at sunset

The definition of what constitutes ‘old age’ is always relative. What young person doesn’t think that their parents are old, even if those parents are only in their 40s. It is only with the passing of years that you realise that age is just a number and that it is how you feel and your outlook on life that is more defining of whether others see you as ‘young’ or ‘old’. However, society doesn’t apparently share this view. According to a research study by Spring Chicken, a UK company that provides products and services to help people manage the ageing process, the general public thinks ‘old’ begins at 67.

This finding is a bit of a shock to me (aged 59 and ¾), and Loose Women presenter Gloria Hunniford, who is 75, feels the same way. Indeed, she feels so passionate about it that she supporting the Spring Chicken Campaign to combat this stereotyping of ‘old age’. The research study showed that only 5% of people over 65 see themselves as fitting into the category of ‘old’, so how is it that ‘society’, based on the sample in the study, thinks that old age begins at 67. That’s certainly not old in my book, and I bet it isn’t in most of yours either.

Gloria told The Telegraph in an interview about the report that she certainly didn’t feel old at 67 and still doesn’t now she’s in her 70s. As she told the journalist, ” The over 65s are living longer and embracing later life, but this report shows that the rest of society hasn’t kept up with this new reality.” Now she’s on a mission to open society’s eyes and bring about a change, because this perception certainly doesn’t represent how people over 65 feel.

Over 65s happy and self-confident

Almost 50% of the people in the over 65 age bracket told the researchers that they feel happier now than at any other time in their life and at least 20% said that age had improved their self-confidence. But, perhaps the most interesting response is this: a third of the over-65s questioned said that if they could choose an age to be, they’d choose the age they are now. I bet most youngsters will find that bizarre, because we are constantly being fed messages that youth is a more valuable commodity than maturity.

There is a disconnect between the advertising messages that play on a largely imposed desire to look youthful and the reality of how many confident, older people actually feel. Gloria puts her own feeling of youthfulness down to “doing what I’ve been doing for years so my day-to-day discipline hasn’t really changed.” She is admittedly also fortunate to work in a youth-oriented industry that in itself helps to maintain a feeling of agelessness, especially if you are as highly respected by younger presenters as Gloria Hunniford is. The energy that comes from being around younger people does undoubtedly have an uplifting and infectious effect.

Mature couple laughing

Antidote to ageing

That is something that Sir Muir Gray, the man who gave us the NHS Choices information source, would probably agree with. In his book, “The Antidote to Ageing” he claims that keeping a positive attitude is just as important as staying healthy. He warns, “A negative outlook on life hastens the onset of ill health, partly because people who adopt this attitude make no attempt to stay healthy, let alone get healthier.” Thankfully, I’d say that based on many of the topics I’ve covered for this column, an increasing number of over-50s (and I include everyone over the age of 50 in this group) are very engaged with health improvement, both physical and mental. The Spring Chicken study supports this and reports that over one-third of people over 65 are careful with diet, take supplements and engage in brain fitness pursuits as well as physical activities.

So, how can we change society’s perception that old age begins at 67? Gloria suggests that the key to combating this perception is staying more connected to young people. Her grandchildren call her ‘Glo’ or even ‘G-Dog’ and she says that spending time talking to them about music and other interests, as well as doing things with them, both keeps her in touch with youthfulness and youth culture. She has a point: if kids see you can have a chat about what’s happening in music and fashion without dismissing it as ‘modern rubbish’ they will gradually realise that we are not quite, as Shakespeare put it at the end of the “all the world’s a stage” monologue, “Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” At least, not at 67!



by Eleanor McKenzie

Eleanor McKenzie is a Northern Irish writer with a passion for art, literature, and red wine. She's worked at advertising agency JWT, edited a journal for a European social policy think tank and tried to teach teenagers the difference between "there" and "their". Being 50+ has not significantly changed Eleanor's life, although she finds it a handy excuse when she wants to avoid anything too energetic.