“I am not getting old”

Aug 10, 2015 | BLOG

By: Riah Wilkinson

This week the Sunday Times reported ‘Healthy nurse, 75, chooses death over ‘going downhill’[1]. Gill Pharaoh, a palliative care nurse, travelled to Switzerland and ended her life through assisted suicide.

The reason for her decision lay in her fear of growing old and the indignity she perceived it would bring. Pharaoh’s decision was strongly opposed by the alliance group Care Not Killing, with a spokesman saying: “This is another deeply troubling case and sends out a chilling message about how society values and looks after elderly people.” So how does society value and look after older people?

Robert Butler, founder of the International Longevity Centre (ILC) argued that the language used when describing ageing and older people only serves to shape, reinforce and reflect society’s attitudes towards ageing[2]. Our fear of growing old and becoming a ‘burden’ is fixed in our concerns about inherent vulnerability in our later years. Often older people in the media are portrayed in a patronising or stereotypical fashion; one which is not a balanced representation of ageing. Television reporting and articles in the press generally refer to older people using negative language such as ‘bed blockers’ ‘burden’ or a ‘dementia tsunami’. Furthermore examples of positive ageing remain linked to good health, independence, and economic and social vitality – all factors which reflect productivity, independence and youthfulness. An article published by the Daily Mail is an example of this, reporting on how Helen Mirren is ageing gracefully and how she’s ‘faced up to ageing’[3]

The physical and mental effects of growing old combined with a largely negative media portrayal can marginalise older adults. They notice how poorly or little they are represented and begin to believe these images. They then run the risk of becoming entrenched in these beliefs both consciously and sub-consciously. Studies have proven that older adults who are exposed to these negative attitudes are less likely to accept life prolonging interventions[4].

The Society for Old Age Rational Suicide (Soars) argues that Gill’s decision to travel to Switzerland was rational, allowing her to take pre-emptive measures to stop the “decrepitude of ‘old age’”. However others would argue there is still a huge amount of reciprocal fulfilment and contribution to be had in later life; and the option of assisted suicide for older people could put pressure on individuals who felt they may be a burden on their family or the state.

Ultimately the case of Pharaoh is a very personal matter and judgement should be reserved. But the high profile nature of her decision and the ensuing media coverage may serve in contributing to other people’s negative attitudes towards ageing.

Riah Wilkinson

Fundraising Coordinator, Age UK