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Report on BSG2011 – Plymouth University “Understanding and Promoting the Value of Older Age”
And what a conference it was!

In this, our 40th year of British gerontology, the Society’s annual conference was hosted by Professor Catherine Hennessy and team at Plymouth University. Although plagued with a bit of rain and cool air, the conference was by all means another great success. The range of event venues and sea air added another special touch!

The academic programme provided 3 days of stimulating exchange among researchers, students and practitioners. Participants first had an option of pre-conference activities including a session for emerging researchers on career pathways and a seminar on malnutrition in older people. The following agenda provided a range of symposia and paper sessions capturing the conference theme and were eagerly attended by enthusiastic participants. As usual, there was a selection of very high quality research papers from colleagues across the globe. And participants filled the main theatre to hear the equally stimulating key note addresses by our own Christina Victor, Andrew Achenbaum from the US and Nora Keating from Canada.

Other highlights included the “Living Library” (or speed dating) for emerging researchers (see the bursary reports for more on this), and the launch of Bill Bytheway’s latest book entitled “Unmasking Age” (also reviewed in this issue of GR). The timing of the release of Bill’s book with our 40th anniversary was a real pleasure given his important contribution to the Society over the years. And of course, everyone was also thrilled to share in the BSG Outstanding Achievement Awards that were presented to Sarah Arber, Chris Phillipson and Tony Warnes.

The social programme was equally outstanding. The venue for the 40th anniversary welcome reception at the Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery was fantastic and a wonderful atmosphere to meet up with new and old friends. The conference dinner was also held in the impressive surroundings at the NHS Drake Royal Naval Yard. Here we were treated to rooms with beautifully panelled walls, ceilings that adorned replica ships, a tiered BSG anniversary cupcake cake, music, a master of ceremonies that kept us laughing between courses, and the lovely Angela Rippon as an after dinner speaker.

Angela treated a full house with her stories as a young newspaper reporter, an ageing television presenter (and “knowledgeable asset”) and as an ambassador for the Alzheimer’s Society. She confidently held her position as she relayed her experience of ageism (or not) in television. In her words and reproduced with her permission:

It’s true that some high profile presenters and cases have recently made a strong argument for the existence of ageism in television – particularly against women of a certain age – which is why Miriam O’Riley was successful in her claim for ageism against the BBC. And it is also true that in the field of news and Current affairs women over 50 are pretty much non-existent. But the broadcast media is a vast empire, producing hundreds of programmes 24 hours a day, seven days a week right through the year – and that means that – contrary to the perception that television is riddled with ageism, there are in fact many broadcasters in their 60’s working on television on a regular basis.
Who is going to tell 85 year old sir David Attenborough that he is too old to go on working and producing the magnificent programmes that come out of the natural History department of the Beeb in Bristol. Who’s going to take 86 year old Bruce Forsyth off Strictly Come dancing, 72 year old Terry Wogan off radio two, 69 year old Annie Nightingale off Radio 1. Who wants to ban the excellent 70 year old Sue McGregor from A Good Read or The Reunion on Radio Four, Alan Titchmarsh aged 62 to stop gardening. Or tell me and my two colleagues on Rip Off Britain that we should – push off. No one. Because in each case we are valued for our experience, our authority and our and our professional expertise. OK – there aren’t that many of us compared with the number of younger presenters around – but we are still there. And frankly the viewers for the most part couldn’t care less about the age of a presenter, as long as the job they do is one that the viewing public enjoy, trust and respect.

And her thoughts on representations of older people in the press:

Let me quote from a recent story in the Daily Mail just a week ago on June 29th following the publication of a report called Old and Broke from the think tank Reform. These are direct quotes:

“Britain faces a bleak future of higher taxes and a rising deficit if ministers continue to increase spending on state pensions and the NHS, a hard hitting report warns today. The report warns that our ageing population threatens to overwhelm the Coalition’s attempts to bring down the UK’s biggest ever peace time deficit. The report calculates that the ageing population will impose an additional burden on the taxpayer of £32 billion for pensions and nearly £40 billion for healthcare by 2041 – without allowing for inflation. This is set to force up both taxes and state borrowing during the next Parliament – “swamping” Chancellor George Osborne’s plans for deficit reduction”.
Could that language be more inflammatory? In just a few sentences the over 60’s are portrayed as the bad guys – responsible for wrecking future economic prosperity of the country. Threatening the economic survival of the younger generation. Well pardon me for daring to become a pensioner.
The vocabulary used is doing a great job of demonising the older generation. Creating the impression that an entire generation is somehow threatening the future of the young – let alone the government’s economic strategy. When in fact, reading the entire report makes it clear that the situation is nowhere near that dramatic.

As a young reporter starting my very first day on the job at the Sunday Independent – right here in this city – I was called in by the chief reporter – Mr. Wilfred Cox, and given the best piece of advice any young journalist could receive: honesty, accuracy and integrity. Now visiting professor of journalism at Lincoln University – pass on to students.

Clearly Kirsty Walker, the journalist who wrote that story – does not have those three words in her lexicon. In her enthusiasm to write a headline grabbing, eye catching controversial story geared to frighten the life out of us, she has gone down the route of the old Fleet Street adage of “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story”. Or as Kelvin Mackenzie – former editor of the Sun newspaper once said, “If we had a really good story, I never wanted to spoil it by checking the facts.”

I think you get the picture. The audience were captivated for those 30 minutes! Just a fantastic evening for all!

The conference closed the following afternoon with an invitation to Keele University for 2012. And the smiling, but exhausted, participants slowly departed for the train station. Be sure to come along next year...you’ll enjoy yourself...I know you will.

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