She is one of Australia’s most successful and beloved actors, with a career spanning 45 years. Now, Noni Hazlehurst wants to change the way we think about getting older. Bringing the wealth of her personal experience and clear passion for the issue to her role as host of the latest episode of What Does Australia Really Think About…, Noni is on a quest to discover what our nation really thinks about its older generation.
The episode presents key findings from the survey on older people conducted by the University of Queensland revealing that, despite our ageing population, 51% of us concede that age-based discrimination is common in Australia, and a further 31% of people believe their age sometimes makes them feel invisible. They are statistics that are hard to ignore.
“I’m living it,” Noni said. “If you’re a young person, you don’t think about it. You’re only kind of involved with the older people in your life. Older people as a subset don’t really enter into your frame of reference very much.”
It’s this generational gap that appears to be the source of some of the challenges increasingly encountered as we age. Further results from the survey showed that 44% of respondents aged 18–24 feel a lack of connection with the older generation and almost 45% of those over the age of 35 confirmed that this lack of connection is reciprocated.
With the division already recognised by some individuals in their mid-thirties, for those in their fifties and beyond this gap can feel immense. It first appeared for Noni as a shift in the roles she was offered.
“I started noticing it over the age of 50. You’re then exclusively Mum or Grandma or a peripheral character,” she said. “I think in general the theatre is more accepting of age because there are more great plays written with older characters in them. I also think, in general, older actors who have survived a long career are more revered and there are a lot of good roles for older actors in theatre. It’s a much harder battle on screen.”
Australian actor Tony Cogin (The Drover’s Wife, Bell Shakespeare’s Hamlet – 2022), who himself has had a long career as both a stage and screen actor, believes that representations of age in the entertainment industry are simply a reflection of the perspective of society more broadly, affecting men and women alike.
“Anaïs Nin wrote: ‘We don’t see the world as it is, we see it as we are.’ It’s one of my favourite life quotes because it screams at us to acknowledge our bias,” he said. “Grey hair and wrinkles are less in vogue than coloured tresses and taut skin. I think contemporary theatre is examining different issues at the moment and perhaps age is not part of the agenda.
“I think Australia is in denial about its ageing population and I think the current government is in denial about the arts and artists in general. So, a perfect storm for an older actor. Perhaps it is just that we have not developed enough emotional intelligence to engage with the nuanced, delicate, slow dance of age.”
The stories shared and experiments carried out throughout this episode of What Does Australia Really Think About ... prove Tony’s point. The impact of ageism reaches far beyond the stereotypical portrayal of older people in the media; it’s embedded within the zeitgeist of modern Australia, and indeed the western world. While there is some reassurance in the 85% of respondents who agreed that age discrimination shouldn’t be tolerated, 68% believe that non-western cultures are significantly ahead of us in terms of respecting the senior members of their society.
New York-based writer and expert on ageism Ashton Applewhite says that our own fears of getting older are often the foundation of our negative perception of age.
“Ageing is not a problem to be ‘fixed’ or a disease to be ‘cured’,” she said. “It is a powerful, natural, lifelong process that unites us all. Nobody is born ageist. It starts at early childhood, around the same time attitudes towards race and gender start to form, because negative messages about late life bombard us from the media and popular culture at every turn.”
It’s a fact supported by the 42% of respondents who felt assumptions were made about them based solely on their age, and the staggering 72% who cited the loneliness that this lack of understanding brings. So if all this is true, why is our nation’s attitude to ageing one issue that we still aren’t talking about?
“One of the things that did surprise me in the documentary was how few older people [in those experiments] said anything [when witnessing age discrimination],” Noni said. “I think they’re frightened to speak up. People are afraid to say what they think because others are so vocal about their opposition to anything they don’t agree with.”
“People are afraid to say what they think because others are so vocal about their opposition to anything they don’t agree with.” Noni Hazlehurst
Though the episode is confronting at times in its discussion of the harsh realities of aged care, homelessness and barriers to employment in older age, it affirms that change is possible. Noni hopes that it will encourage people of all ages to reflect, particularly on the attitudes that shape unconscious bias and perpetuate this one-dimensional representation of ageing.
“If it engenders discussion, fantastic, if it affords one or two people to reflect on their judgement, and to be a little kinder in their everyday lives to people, fabulous,” she says.
“This is the one '-ism' that will, if you’re lucky, affect everybody on Earth.”
Watch the episode about old age on What Does Australia Really Think About… at 8:30pm on Wednesday 25 August on SBS and SBS On Demand. The three-part series continues weekly. Episodes will be repeated at 10.15pm Mondays on SBS VICELAND.
Join the conversation on social media #AusThinks.
Want to know what Australia really thinks about disability? That episode of What Does Australia Really Think About…, hosted by Kurt Fearnley, is now streaming at SBS On Demand: