Every November a television advertisement is rolled out in the UK that provokes smiles and tears from some, but cynical sighing and eye-rolling from others. In the past, the department store chain John Lewis has sent bears, hares and penguins to mark the opening salvo of the festive season.
This year, the commercial seeks to address an important issue in society – the isolation of the elderly during Christmas time. But under the surface of plucking at our heart strings, what message is it really sending about older people and is it as positive as it could be?
A powerful generation
The ad centres on a young girl who spots an old man living on the moon. It then follows her efforts to send him presents, eventually successfully delivering her gift of a telescope so they can both connect with each other on Christmas Day.
On the one hand, the advert delivers the important message that we need to appreciate the loneliness of our older generation and make plentiful efforts to address this issue. The importance of supporting connections across generations is very valuable and the efforts of children forming firm relationships with older parents and grandparents can improve well-being for the older generation. So in this sense, it is a positive offering.
On the other hand, it adds more weight to the biggest mistake the media (and policymakers) are often guilty of: the assumption of the homogeneity of the older generation. In this, we overlook the idea that the new generation of older people are also a powerful resource for their families, communities and economies when they live in supportive, age-friendly environments. As a healthier group, with increasingly longer lifespans, they have the untapped potential to contribute to not just their own well-being, but also that of their families and the communities they live in.
Research carried out at the University of Southampton for the Active Ageing Index project shows increasing numbers of older people across the EU remain healthy and independent for longer. Many are fulfilled in jobs, with active social lives. They are engaged in civil society. And this is despite the financial crisis and austerity that have marked recent years.
But this can’t continue without further changes in our perception of older people and by enhancing our support for them through younger generations.
Strategies are needed to prevent the loss of valuable expertise, preserve the wisdom of older people and strengthen society’s human and structural resilience. We can take solace from the progress made by the countries who make the most of their older people.
It’s not rocket science
The right social policy priorities and responses, including social protection and universal social services, are needed to support the growing number of older citizens and mitigate the negative implications of population ageing. As early as the 1960s, Japan – the only country in the world with over a third of the population aged above 60 – invested in a comprehensive welfare policy, introduced universal healthcare and social pension, and a plan for income redistribution, low unemployment rates and progressive taxation. This investment has paid off: Japan is currently one of the healthiest and wealthiest countries in the world.
What does all this mean for John Lewis’s man in the moon? Well, more efforts should be made (in such ads, and other media) to highlight the good examples of those who are active and engaged, despite frailty and other challenges of old age. This emblematic advert runs the risk of rubber stamping a tired cliché of all older people living alone, in desperate need of connection and support.
But not too much it seems. While it is wonderful that the old man and the young girl finally make a connection as the film draws to a close – building a bridge between generations and raising his spirits – they are still doing it from afar. Our ragged pensioner is still stuck on the moon, with the fairly high degree of isolation that inevitably brings.
A truly positive take on old age – emphasising actively engaged citizens with a real sense of well-being – might see our old man blast his way back to earth in a rocket, become the life and soul of the Christmas party and enrich the lives of the next generation by sharing diverse experiences from his long, fulfilling and active life.
Maybe next year?