A few days ago I gave a talk on successful ageing to a group of older people in my home city. Their reaction surprised me as it was entirely different from the reaction of the audiences I usually speak to; gerontologists and aged care workers. I often give a list of expressions a group of older people created of terms they felt other people applied to them such as selfish, absentminded, forgetful etc. There is not one positive comment on the list although it contains well over 30 expressions. Professionals always read it with interest whereas the older people roared with laughter. These expressions are unfortunately ones we hear everyday about us.

This unexpected reaction led me to think that we are taking these descriptors on board and this prevents us from achieving as much as we are capable of. If the world thinks that we are useless maybe it is too hard to try to disprove this attitude towards us; it is easier to just take it on board. Older people have so much to offer, so much experience, so much knowledge and so much wisdom. My hope is that eventually society will recognise this undervaluing of us as a negative step. It is a fairly modern idea in the sense that when there were fewer older people this resource was so much smaller and lasted for less time. With today’s expanded lifespan older people are far more numerous and our lives last for longer for most of us. These two facts mean that we are a huge resource which no country can afford to ignore. I wish the message would get out there that the ageing population is not a problem but a bonus. We need to realise that the rest of the community largely regards us as a waste of space out of ignorance. If they continue along this path we should pity them!

Meanwhile it is difficult for older people to go against the trend, believe in ourselves and achieve all we are capable of achieving and enjoy doing it; enjoying our ageing. I don’t think we are designed to just fill in our days with trivial pursuits such as endless lunches and trips to the movies. There is no achievement and feeling of wellbeing in that, or of recognising the peculiar talents and knowledge we each have.

I’m sure humans need to feel that they are part of the community, have a role to play in it and are contributing to it, no matter our age. Meanwhile the community is missing out on all those attributes we have and older people miss out on the satisfaction of being worthwhile citizens.

We older people need to believe in ourselves, and in what we can still achieve, no matter the backwardness of those around us, including the policy makers. We have a long uphill road ahead of us but think of the legacy we leave for those who come after us. After all we are the current elders.