After decades of struggle, pro-aging advocates have good reason to be heartened. The current trend in mainstream and social media is to address the question of how to abolish ageism––in the workplace, the marketplace and the community. The need to establish economic and social equity for all generations is becoming a given; the priority now is to identify strategies that achieve this goal.
Programs that focus on interdependent goals, intergenerational activity or intersectional advocacy are making significant progress. These strategies are proving to be effective because they foster connection and mutual support. They are based on the understanding that no one ages successfully alone.
But what does “successful aging” mean? According to Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, “Successful aging includes areas of our lives that we’re responsible for––but also areas that our institutions, policies and society control.”
However, the term is more often misused to indicate that the responsibility of aging well lies solely with the individual.
“The emphasis on personal responsibility for successful aging is quite problematic for a number of reasons,” says Toni Calasanti, professor of sociology at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. “On one hand, successful aging really advocates that old people not age — that they remain as much like middle-aged persons as possible. In that sense, it places a heavy burden on individuals to ‘not age,’ which is ultimately impossible…. And it doesn’t take into account the very real differences across groups based on such statuses as gender, race and class.” She cites lack of access to good medical care and to affordable housing as just two of many factors that can affect these groups’ ability to age successfully.
Burdens are more readily eased and benefits more readily shared in a society that values interdependence over their independence.
A successful interdependent social model has been created by the “village movement,” which aims to keep people aging in their homes and communities. Each nonprofit village in a geographical neighborhood provides volunteer and vetted or discounted vendor services for its members.
“Villages create programs and services that enhance many social determinants of wellness,” explains Barbara Sullivan, executive director of the Village to Village Network. Founded on interdependence among older adults, Sullivan says “the village movement is showing a model for taking charge.”
“Smart design can build interdependence,” adds Marc Freedman, Encore.org founder and CEO, and author of How to Live Forever: The Enduring Power of Connecting the Generations. “I’ve been following projects that are placing affordable senior housing above public libraries. Imagine the possibilities for advancing literacy at all ages (how about intergenerational book groups?), engaging older adults as mentors and job coaches, getting teens to help older adults with technology. Proximity can create the opportunity to bring people together across many divides.”
Such proximity among generations, as Freedman points out, is key to another successful equity-building strategy: creating intergenerational programming.
“We fear what we don’t know,” he says. Freedman co-chairs with Encore.org Vice President Eunice Lin Nichols the Gen2Gen campaign, which is working to mobilize 1 million people aged 50 and older to use their talents to work with and for children in order to help them thrive. “Intergenerational programs disrupt ageism by allowing multiple generations to get to know one another as individuals. When that happens, we can begin to lower the walls created by preconceived notions and prejudice.”
Two growing trends in intergenerational programming are providing events, such as those organized in various cities by CIRKEL, and providing housing, such as in the communities of Bridge Meadows in Portland, Oregon, and Judson Manor in Cleveland, Ohio.
Intergenerational events and housing programs target the problem of social isolation, which many people assume occurs solely among older adults––but this is one of many myths regarding age.
“We know older people are more likely to feel socially isolated and experience the negative impacts that result,” asserts Butts. “What few people connect is the fact that young people are the other age group most likely to report feeling socially isolated. Generations don’t, or shouldn’t, exist in silos. The intersections are so clear when you use an intergenerational solutions lens.”
Not only does ageism intersect the lives of different generations; it usually appears in the midst of one or more other prejudices.
Calasanti says ageism “definitely interacts with other ‘isms’. We judge some groups to be ‘old’ sooner than others, value this differently, etc. So, women who are gray or wrinkled may be seen to be ‘old,’ but men with gray hair can be seen to be powerful (if they are also from the upper class — so intersecting with another ‘ism’) and thus attractive. People are seen to be ‘old’ and lose value differently depending on their gender, class, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation.” Campaigns such as The Old Women’s Project are based on such intersectionality.
Building age equity goes hand in hand with fostering all other kinds of equality. As anti-ageism activist Ashton Applewhite writes in This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism: “Why add another ‘ism’ to the list when so many, racism in particular, call out for action? Here’s the thing: We don’t have to choose. When we make the world a better place to grow old in, we make it a better place in which to be from somewhere else, to have a disability or be queer or non-white or non-rich.”
As it turns out, efforts to abolish ageism and build age equity are gradually gaining strength precisely because of their focus on the interdependent, intergenerational and intersectional realities of today’s world.