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Rewiring our nation's brain

Neuroscientists tell us that due to neuroplasticity we can ‘rewire’ our brain and change the way we think about and respond to our lives. Got bad habits? No longer are you stuck with them. You can teach your brain to change and the world around you will begin to change too. But could this work on a collective level? Could we rewire the ‘brain’ of our nation? Can we change the way we think, talk and act about a group of people?


Yes, history shows us that we can. Sexism gave rise to the feminism movement – thinking about women shifted from degrading stereotypes to new language and actions realigning them with their capabilities and strength. Racism gave rise to multiculturalism – thinking about difference not as bad but something that can add richness and diversity to the social fabric of a nation.


But, what about ageism? What has our response been to that? We have no proper language or movement to reframe our current stereotypes about both ends of the age spectrum. I don’t think I need to remind people what these stereotypes are.


Is what we need a resurgence of humanism (my definition of this is seeing universal human value in everyone)? Rather than having limiting beliefs based on people’s age can we see them as productive, capable and relevant? Because after all human beings are capable of extraordinary things despite their age. Okinawa (the Japanese island with one of the longest life expectancies) has no word for ‘retire’. There is a word ‘ikigai’ which is your ‘life purpose’ - you never lose it, it just changes.


The Australian Human Rights Commission released a report last year saying that more than 70% of people feel that age discrimination is common in Australia, a problem that must be addressed. The Council of the Ageing (COTA) has identified this as one of their three high priority areas over the next few years.


Throughout much of recorded history, elders have had honoured roles in society that were defined and supported. This remains true among the world’s remaining indigenous peoples. Elders have been the nurturers of community, the spiritual leaders, the guardians of traditions, the teachers, mentors and initiators of young people. They have been the storytellers who have helped their people see the enduring wisdom and deeper meanings of life that lie beneath superficial models of reality. In our current world of ever-accelerating change, most of what older people have learned about work and technology is considered out of date and no longer useful. In dismissing the elderly for these reasons, modern society also dismisses its prime potential source of deep wisdom and enduring values.


So back to the brain – what can it teach us about reframing ageing stereotypes?

This quote from a blog by the Centre for Confidence in the UK provides some food for thought on the matter:


 "Yale University found that older people who hold negative stereotypes about themselves (e.g. viewing themselves as senile as opposed to wise) display a more negative response to stress, have lower self-efficacy and impaired cognitive function, and are more likely to have a negative view of other old people. Not only did they find that negative stereotypes affected performance and attitudes, but they also found that these beliefs contributed to serious illness and even death. Their research shows that people who held negative stereotypes of ageing refuse life-prolonging interventions and that their negative views directly affects their will to live, meaning in life, and ultimately their mortality…


The good news is that holding positive views of ageing has a beneficial impact on people. For example, Levy et al found that holding positive views about ageing increased life expectancy by about 7.6 years. This added more years to life than: low blood pressure, low cholesterol, not smoking and regular exercise - these only add one or two years of life expectancy”

Thousands of research studies prove that you can directly influence people’s perception of themselves and even switch their mindset. On an individual level this is important and it needs to be driven on a collective level too.


Susan V. Bosak, Chair of the Legacy Project, captures this sentiment beautifully; “We divide up our communities and our activities by age – young people in schools, older people in retirement communities or facilities. We talk a lot about all the ways we need to help older people. But, perhaps, the old can help us. It's the experience of life in a multigenerational, interdependent, richly complex community that, more than anything else, teaches us how to be human.”


Paul Zak, Director of the Centre for Neuro-economics, has conducted recent scientific research that highlights the power of stories to illicit neurochemical responses through oxytocin synthesis which induce voluntary cooperation. This means that stories change the way we think and inspire us to act in support of a message.


So could stories be a transformational tool to change people’s views and support them to act in support of a more inclusive approach to our elders and their involvement in our society?

Extensive statistics are now available on sources of income and health status of the elderly population, which are driven from a biased discourse focusing on the economic impacts of a growing ageing population, not on the social benefits that they can provide. We need stories that demonstrate the latter.


Average life expectancy in Australia is now around 82, and the average retirement age is around 61.5. This means that people are likely to spend a quarter of their life in retirement and ‘old’ in others’ eyes.  If you combine the last quarter of everyone’s life it would be the most valuable asset this country has.


Keep a look out for the social enterprise I am launching in September which will use stories to connect the generations as well as reduce social isolation and ageism.


There are significant benefits to old and young that might come from reduced ageism and more age integration. Ageist stereotypes, like other stereotypes, are fed in an environment of high segregation. Ageism will not be combated by one project, program, campaign or social policy. It requires a new shift in thinking that will take time. I am 25 and I plan to see this shift happen in my lifetime.


Written by Sophie Weldon
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