Promoting the ideology of positive ageing in professional thinking: the emergence of successful ageing and active ageing concepts

Promoting the ideology of positive ageing in professional thinking: the emergence of successful ageing and active ageing concepts

With people living longer, increasing concerns with costs in social and health care generated international interest in policy responses which focus on healthy ageing, the prevention of illnesses and disabilities, and community support (Bowling & Dieppe, 2005; Ribeiro, 2015). Furthermore, older generations were expected to be active and fully engaged in modern societies as ways of preventing health deterioration and the associated burden on health and social care services (Martin et al., 2015; Pike, 2013; WHO, 2002). This cultural narrative was further emphasised by the appropriation of findings regarding older adults’ cognitive and physical reserves, brain plasticity, and potential for change (Baltes & Baltes, 1990; Erickson, Gildengers, & Butters, 2013; Jeste, Depp, & Vahia, 2010). Consequently, negative views on later life—based on medical failure, passivity, and illness management—gave way to more positive views on ageing and the possibility of controlling it (Blaikie, 1999; Bowling & Dieppe, 2005).

In this context, social gerontology started to pay attention to ‘the ways in which health and well-being were maintained […] as a common feature of normal ageing’ (Johnson & Mutchler 2014, p. 94). This new focus on positive ageing not only stressed the possibility of living an active and healthy old age but also challenged ageist concepts of ageing as a period of decline and deterioration (Featherstone & Hepworth, 1995, Rozanova, 2010). This new perspective aimed to empower older adults through political and civil engagement and promote positive images of ageing (associated with the cultural narrative of activity, independence and well-being) (Katz, 1999). Thus, gerontology entered the public debate about ageing with defined categories about success, vitality, and optimal functioning in later life (Leibing, 2005). Two overlapping concepts have been promoted to foster a positive imagery around old age: successful ageing and active ageing. These frameworks highlight the importance of social engagement and continuing participation in social roles for individuals’ well-being (Johnson and Mutcheler, 2014).

The movement of positive ageing in social gerontology has had an impact upon public understandings of ageing and health. As explored above, youth values, the imperative of an active lifestyle, and the ideology of productive ageing have been constantly promoted in the media and public discourse of ageing (Featherstone & Hepworth, 1995; Ylanne et al., 2009).

Positive ageing promotes activity, health, and social engagement as normative ideals for individuals (Rozanova et al., 2006). According to McHugh (2003), ‘in popular culture, wise lifestyle choices and active engagement in life are touted as pathways to happiness and longevity’ (p.165). In this context, the ‘idealization of ‘a good old age’ reflects the dominance in the Western societies of values of independence, youthfulness, effectiveness, and productivity’ (Rozanova, 2010, p. 214). Despite the advances in promoting a more positive image of ageing, professional discourse is also embedded in the consumerist ideal of ‘third age’ (Ylanne, 2017). This intersection between positive ageing and consumerist industries around later life is due to the adoption of a political (and ethical) orientation based on consumption (Katz, 1999). In this context, ideals of success and healthy ageing are necessary for the promotion of a consumerist and more empowered later life. In this context, the concept of successful ageing gained preponderance in Western public thinking due to its promises of extending health and quality of life with age.


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