I was watching Cbeebies (for my friends around the world this is a television channel dedicated solely to children) with my son earlier today when suddenly it occurred to me that the presenters are always very young. Some of them may be in their 30’s, but certainly even someone of my age, 38, might be hard pushed to land a gig with them. I imagine then it would be next to impossible for someone who is 50 or 60. And if you are in your 70’s or 80’s well dream on. This struck me as incredibly sad. Are we presenting our children a subliminal message that age is bad? Yet when they look around they might see their grandparents picking them up from school, or indeed their grandparents might even be their main care giver. But when they look at their TV screens their real life is not represented.
This in turn set my mind a wondering on those in society who are excluded. Social exclusion, I have observed, is not reserved just for children, or the very old, or the disabled or any other vulnerable group you can think of, but it is a universal theme in our communities. We exclude without thinking, presenting barriers to all aspects of life, it has become a culture.
Remember the case of Moira Stuart being shunted from her job at the BBC once she was deemed too old, whilst male news readers of a similar age were retained in prime time slots. Having overcome barriers all her life, a woman from a BME (Black Minority Ethnic) background fell at the final most insurmountable hurdle, age. And even worse than that she was an old woman, seemingly the most unacceptable thing to be. A friend of Stuart’s remarked at the time.
Similar situations have arisen in recent years with Selina Scott and Miriam O’Reilly taking their employers to tribunals.
Yet older people have so much to offer us. I work with older people in their 60’s and 70’s who work with children and they seem to connect with them in interesting and surprising ways. I think they pick up on their wisdom (a cliché to some extent when talking of the old because it’s not always true, I’ve met adults with no wisdom and children with all the wisdom in the world, but sometimes it is a truism.) Anecdotally I have observed these older people quickly establishing a rapport with a child and putting them at ease, and it is a wonderful thing to behold. I do not want to perpetuate stereotypes, because young people have a place, and a connection to make with children, but we all do. That’s what troubled me about Cbeebies, we are missing an opportunity to be inclusive, and to be truly inclusive we must include all. Not just for the sake of it but to create a more peaceful and tolerant world.
With these thoughts swirling around my mind I thought of an older person who inspires me. Her name is Sheila Mander and when I first met her she was quickly approaching her 80th year. She is a theatre director, writer, teacher, mentor, mother, grandmother and general tour de force. It had been a few years since we had last spoken, although we are in touch online, and I wondered whether she could answer a few of my questions about ageism and what drives her to continue working into her 80’s. I also wondered what her view was on the importance of inter-generational relationships.
As always she was very generous with her time and this is what she had to say.
Hi Sheila, how are you?
You wanted to ask me why I keep on working?
Well I wouldn’t phrase it quite like that.
(Laughter). Well quite. Well John I am 83 now and I keep working because I love doing what I do. I don’t work all the time, I can control it. I still teach at Mander Hall (the academy she runs with her daughter). I direct shows and do a little teaching. I think it’s important to stay active, I swim everyday, enjoy knitting and doing the crossword. I love research and learning new things. I share my passion and want to inspire people to be themselves and to make people feel more valued. My greatest gift is being valued, by my husband and my family.
Do you think there is a benefit to inter-generational relationships?
It’s wonderful. For example I met a 6-year-old boy today and I couldn’t believe his imagination. I don’t just give out knowledge, I receive it too. These relationships are exciting, I have 18 grandchildren, the youngest is 7 and the oldest in his 30’s and they are always ringing me for advice or mowing our lawn. Of course I think that food is always involved because I make a lot of nice cakes (more laughter). I span several generations and I think it is fascinating. My daughter is involved in a new project where she is taking a group of 4 year olds into an old folks home and they have a buddy, who is an older person, and they all learn to sing together. The mix of music and the young people can have a transformative effect. When I used to do the youth theatre at the Everyman (theatre in Cheltenham) it used to be ages 11-30 and I used to mix them all up. It was a huge learning experience for them and the older ones kept an eye out for the younger ones. People who were involved with this group still say to me today how much they loved these inter-age relationships.
Do you notice any differences between teaching children in your 80’s to when you were teaching in your 30’s?
I think their attention spans are shorter. One of the first things I do is work on their concentration. Everything has to be so immediate these days. People want immediate gratification and the trouble with that is the satisfaction that comes from getting things straight away doesn’t last. The joy of working hard on something is where you can earn real satisfaction and I think theatre is hard work but you get a slow burn sense of satisfaction. A sense that you have achieved something and the hard work has paid off. We take things for granted now but when I married we had nothing and everything we gained came with a great sense of achievement.
What things are you currently working on?
I am writing my life story. Not really for publishing but for my family. Writing it has made me aware of the freedoms that I had as a child that children don’t have now. I was an evacuee during the second world war and I used to go out scrumping apples, making dams in the streams. I would go out with just a bottle of water and some bread and jam and not return until it was dark. I am still directing and teaching. I love directing plays because it involves research and that is fascinating, I still go on learning.
Do you think we are scared of old age?
Well I feel blessed as I still have lots of energy. Emotional energy and passion. I also feel more political than I’ve ever been in my life. The Brexit situation makes me angry because it affects our children and grandchildren and we need to think about these things. I am not scared of dying though because of my faith. My faith has made me aware of my own selfishness and it doesn’t matter if I am right or wrong, if there turns out to not be a God or heaven, it doesn’t matter, because faith has allowed me to be kinder to people. My Dad was a lapsed catholic but I started going to church anyway because I loved the ritual of it all. I’ve always had a faith in kindness. A lot of my closest friends have died and you find yourself the only one left who remembers things so I think it’s important to keep on learning things and keep on sharing things with the younger generation. I feel blessed to have my husband, who is 88 now, and everyday we say “thank God we’ve got each other,” because I know people who have suffered with loneliness.
Thank you Sheila, any final thoughts on how important it is to value inter-generational relationships?
I think the greatest gift I have been given was the unconditional love of my parents and that’s what we can offer to our children, because all anyone really wants is to be made to feel special.
Sheila really is an inspiration and I hope she has given you a positive message about how we should value what we can learn from each other, regardless of age. She inspires me to think that anything is possible with determination and has encouraged me to think creatively. Our conversation re-affirmed to me the need to not exclude people, whether because of their age or some other arbitrary factor. We must include everyone, otherwise we risk missing out on such a wealth of knowledge and a range of experiences, from the smallest baby to the oldest person.
For more information about Sheila Mander you can check out her Mander Hall Academy.
“Sheila Mander has been teaching and directing Theatre in Gloucestershire for over 45 years.
She attained the highest mark in Britain for her teachers’ Diploma at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. Having studied to become a professional actor she worked in weekly rep radio and film before producing her greatest achievement, 6 children. Returning to work part-time at first and building a huge speech & Drama practise, as well as classes in drama for all ages- she has taught from 4 yrs and all ages up to A level Theatre Studies.
She became head of Education and founded The Everyman Youth Theatre & the Reachout Department at the Everyman Theatre in 1986. In 1990 she was promoted to Associate Director, directing both Profession shows. In 2003 she was made an Honorary Fellow of Gloucestershire University for “Raising the expectation of Young People throughout Gloucestershire.” She has Since co written and Delivered the Foundation degree and the BA honours degree in performing Arts for the University. Sheila has a huge passion for developing confidence in all ages, and looks forward to helping guide Mander Hall Academy to the challenges ahead.”