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From Deficit to Potential: Flipping the Narrative in Aging

Susan Donley November 4, 2019
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How changing your perspective can transform outcomes.

If you’ve worked in aging for any time—or if you live in modern America for that matter—you know the story we’ve all been telling about “getting old.” It’s a tale of decline; of a life that grows smaller and quieter as the years go by. Older people head off into the sunsets of Florida or Arizona or the assisted living around the block. Maybe they play a round of golf at the club or Candy Land with the grandkids, but mostly they stick close to the familiar. Bland, recognizable dinners; Wheel of Fortune; and early to bed in smaller and smaller rooms.

And it’s not just the lives of older people that are shrinking in our perception—it’s their bodies and minds too. When we talk about aging, we talk about atrophying muscles, deepening wrinkles and weakening mental capacity. Older people are spotty and dotty. The only thing worse than their balance is their judgment.

It’s a familiar, if bleak, narrative.  And it’s repeated again and again. A bad story told by people who are not necessarily bad. In fact, all too often the very people who most want to support and engage older people are the ones who reinforce this perception of aging. It’s you and me. (The call is coming from inside the house!)

But what if we flipped the script? What if instead of talking about avoiding falls, we talked about mobility and strength? What if instead of loneness, we talked about purpose? What if instead of scams, we talked about security?

If we did that, could we change the narrative—and the outcomes?

Why the Narrative Matters

Perceptions about aging are powerful. They are manifest in everything from public policies to health care decisions to corporate hiring practices. Older people are limited in the roles they can play in our communities; they are over or under treated at the doctor’s office; and they have a harder time finding and keeping jobs. These and the many other ways in which we devalue older people, rob our society of significant capacity and potential. 

Negative narratives about growing older also change us on the inside. A 2018 Columbia University study found evidence that older people distance and dissociate themselves from negative age stereotypes. You’d think this “othering”—assuring that we ourselves are never the “old people” everyone’s talking about —would help protect us. But that’s not the case.

Becca Levy of the Yale School of Public Health found that negative perceptions of aging adversely affect the health of older people, leading to excess annual health care costs of $63 billion in the U.S., while exposure to positive stereotypes showed improved physical functioning.

Ways to Change the Story

So if the casual ageism lurking in our familiar narrative is harmful, what are we doing to change how we tell the story?

Of course, the first thing we should do is look to ourselves. Listen to your own language and how you talk about your work, your clients or customers and about aging in general. Adopt some personal strategies to help flip your script.

Leaders in the longevity market have also been working to change the way our field communicates about growing older. In addition to many smaller, on-the-ground efforts, the eight organizations collectively known as the Leaders of Aging Organizations, launched the Reframing Aging Initiative in 2014, fielding new research into the public’s understanding of aging as well as specific communications recommendations for the field.

We need to inspire the larger culture to change their narrative too—and the media is great place to start. After all, the media is well positioned to challenge ageism by portraying older people and aging in positive and realistic ways. Recently, AARP released survey findings showing that 69% of consumers age 50+ say media images are ageist. That’s just one more bit of evidence supporting the need to widen net when it comes to improving how we communicate about aging. Since my days working at PBS’s Next Avenue, I’ve envisioned a training roadshow that makes stops on Madison Avenue, at Hollywood studios and in newsrooms to engage our country’s most powerful storytellers.

Let’s not leave older consumers out of this effort. The Boomer generation’s track record of social activism and redefining life stages make them prime candidates to lead on this issue. Pubic-facing initiatives combatting ageism led by individuals, governments and nonprofits have cropped up in recent years. And the most savvy and successful longevity market companies are working directly with older people in the design and development of their programs and products.

The potential for these and many other efforts to change the narrative around aging is great and growing. So what would happen if more of us got involved? Could we grow our organizations’ bottom lines? Could we tap into real consumer preferences? Could we understand what they need and design solutions together? Could we truly integrate the lives of older adults in society—moving from “them” to “us”?

If you work in the longevity market, you probably want to help older adults. You want to deliver products, services and supports that will make everyone’s lives better, easier, more fulfilling and more fun. Our communications can and should support that very mission.

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Susan Donley

Susan Donley is Publisher and CEO of Stria. She is dedicated to improving the lives of older people through powerful media and communications. Previously Susan served as Publisher and Managing Director of PBS's Next Avenue.

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