Exhibition tackles old stereotypes

Only a small number of the elderly live in retirement homes Keystone

An exhibition in Liestal near Basel is attempting to dispel rigid stereotypes about growing old in Switzerland.

This content was published on September 26, 2005 - 14:20

"Sixty-six: An exhibition on becoming old and grey" runs at the Museum Baselland until August 2006.

"Old age is associated with illness and loneliness," museum spokeswoman Claudia Pantellini told swissinfo. "We were struck by the one-sided view of old people."

"But there's also this contrasting image of the 'super grannies and granddads', who are constantly on the go," she added.

The title of the exhibition alludes to a well-known German-language pop tune, "Life begins at sixty-six".

A grey future

Commentary from a visiting school class on the theme "When I'm 70 years old..." underscores what the exhibition is up against.

"When I'm 70, I'll probably have dentures and walk very, very slowly," predicted one youngster.

Another wrote: "When I'm 70, I'll have white hair and will probably live in a retirement home."

"When I'm 70, I'll be wilful and cantankerous. And I won't have any work," volunteered a third.

Bucking the trend, a few optimists envisioned living in a large home, surrounded by a beautiful garden.

Pantelli said that the museum, which is near Basel, deliberately aimed the exhibit at different age groups, especially the young.

"We wanted visitors who are not yet old to mull over the positive, and to see that old age is also a chance," she said.

Age as opportunity

Thanks to improved public health, pensioners today can look forward to a good 20 years more of health and activity. This begs the question of what to do with the precious time that is left – an issue which is addressed at the exhibition.

Through films, photographs, installations, dates and information, visitors are challenged to let go of their preconceptions.

For example, one common belief is that most old people spend their last years in retirement homes. In fact, only a small number do.

A critical eye is cast upon language, which shapes how people think of the old. Expressions such as 'seniors’, 'pensioners’ or 'the golden years’ coexist alongside disparaging terms like 'ruins’ and 'wrecks’.

While the exhibit challenges prevailing imagery of illness and loneliness, it does not shy away from the dark side of old age.

Interviews describe the loss of independence and the daily work of carers, exploring the concepts of worth and self-determination among those who must rely upon others.

Visitors are also invited to participate in fun activities, estimating the ages of parliamentarians or filling out a questionnaire on their own life expectancy.

Paying for the old

A key part of the exhibition focuses on the much-debated contact between generations. The history of caring for the elderly is explained, as well as the future of social security.

But the contributions of the elderly are also considered, especially their critical role in neighbourhood-volunteer work and in looking after grandchildren.

Pantellini sees a growing trend in older people putting their know-how at the disposal of society, for example as support for teachers in the classroom.

However, she finds the argument that senior citizens should work longer questionable.

"Above all, it's young people who can't find work. Forcing older people to work ten more years can't be the solution."

What Pantellini hopes is that visitors will come to see that old age is multifaceted. "The elderly have many lifestyles," she said.

swissinfo, Gaby Ochsenbein in Liestal

Key facts

Average life expectancy in Switzerland:
1876: men: 40; women: 43
2003: men: 77.2; women: 82.8

Anticipated life expectancy:
2030: men: 80; women: 85
2060: men: 82; women: 87
Swiss population of retirement age
2000: 15%
2020: 20%
2030: 23%

End of insertion

In brief

According to the Federal Statistics Office:

Only men in Iceland (life expectancy: 78 years), Japan (77.7) and Sweden (77.4) live longer than their Swiss counterparts (77.2).

Women in Switzerland have an average life expectancy of 82.8 years, putting them ahead of their counterparts in France (82.7) but behind the Japanese (84.6).

The statistics reveal that 89% of married men in their 30s can expect to celebrate their 65th birthday. This figure falls to 75% for single men.

End of insertion
In compliance with the JTI standards

In compliance with the JTI standards

More: SWI certified by the Journalism Trust Initiative

You can find an overview of ongoing debates with our journalists here. Please join us!

If you want to start a conversation about a topic raised in this article or want to report factual errors, email us at

Sort by

Change your password

Do you really want to delete your profile?

Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Almost finished... We need to confirm your email address. To complete the subscription process, please click the link in the email we just sent you.

Discover our weekly must-reads for free!

Sign up to get our top stories straight into your mailbox.

The SBC Privacy Policy provides additional information on how your data is processed.