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Changing How We Talk About Aging: Moving from Research to Practice

Bob Rosenblatt March 27, 2018

Leading organizations in the field are waging an uphill battle to transform the way society talks about older age.

Never use the word “senior” when you speak about an older person: It delivers a negative message, a way to set one group against another, taking people deep into a swamp of anger and indifference.

The FrameWorks Institute reached that conclusion as part of its work for the nation’s leading groups in aging, which asked it in 2014 to examine ways advocates for older people, donors, government agencies–and ultimately, the American public–can talk about aging in in a new, more positive way.

The research underscored that negative attitudes are deeply ingrained and will require a long-term effort to transform. “This is a long game, not a quick or simple fix,” said Jean Van Ryzin, director of communications for the National Council on Aging.”We all have to be talking from the same script to change the conversation around the country.”

While the research findings are widely known in the aging community, the emerging challenge will be to find effective ways to implement them.

As part of the effort, the eight organizations in the coalition (American Geriatrics Society, AARP, National Council on Aging, The Gerontological Society of America, American Federation for Aging Research, American Society on Aging, Grantmakers in Aging and the National Hispanic Council on Aging) are taking a hard look at some of their own attitudes and approaches.

At The Gerontological Society of America, “We fell into the trap of painting a gloom and doom picture, that people are suffering, and you need to make a donation to make a difference,” said James Appleby, executive director. Now, GSA has changed the script,”talking more positively,” he said, with a revised stylebook offering a new vocabulary for its writers and editors.

According to the style guidelines, it is better to speak positively about changing demographics, such as pointing out that Americans are living “longer and healthier lives,” rather than using terms like “tidal wave” or “tsunami” to describe the growing older population.

Groups participating in the initiative are committed to a long-run program to change their messaging. It will take years of work and significant spending, officials acknowledge.

As part of the effort, FrameWorks has prepared an initial cadre of 12 trainers to deliver new, more positive messages about aging to policymakers, officials and others who can help spread them into the culture. For implementation to succeed, however, professionals in the field will have to look critically at their own attitudes and the language they may be accustomed to using.

“People don’t even know they are being ageist, as they equate the idea of aging with decline and disability,” said Janine Vanderburg of Colorado, one of the trainers, who has been assigned by the Rose Community Foundation in Colorado to deliver workshops to audiences that will include government agencies, policymakers and nonprofit organizations.

If the initiative works, advocates say, common media narratives about old age will be put to rest, such as singling out people who are novelties–like the 93-year-old who runs marathons–or stories that call out for pity, like the 72-year old with advanced dementia, whose spouse is too weak to lift her out of bed to bathe her.

Earlier in its work, FrameWorks uncovered what it called the “swamp” of public opinion. When asked about aging, people first declared their love and appreciation of older people. But as interviews continued, anger and resentment also emerged. Some blamed sickness and frailty in old age on bad choices people made when they were younger, such as eating unhealthy foods, failing to exercise and neglecting to save for retirement. Older people were discussed as “them.”

“What Frameworks did was look at the landscape and give us the tools to reshape not only our communications in the field but public attitudes and beliefs,” said Ann F. Monroe, chair of Grantmakers in Aging. “Now we need to take it out on the road.”

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Bob Rosenblatt

Bob Rosenblatt is a writer and speaker who specializes in aging, with expertise in Social Security, Medicare, pensions and how to find the right assisted living for your parents. He is editor of helpwithaging.com.

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