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Wine, Food and Networking = Fresh Ideas for Changing the Future

Ann Oldenburg December 18, 2018
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Connectivity, positive messaging and rethinking our environment are key ways to structure change and raise awareness of aging issues.

In a bright room overlooking the Potomac River on a recent wintry Washington, D.C. night, thought leaders, community activists and aging organization advocates were buzzing with ideas as they gathered for “Changing it Up: Raising Awareness of our Aging Society,” an event co-sponsored by Silvernest, Next for Me and Stria News.

The wine was flowing, as was the chatter. The evening was a follow-up to Stria’s recent 2018 State of the Longevity Market Survey, which found that raising public awareness about our aging society is the most-important issue for the field today.

“The primary mission of Stria is to bring people together to elevate new ideas. And that’s really what this event is all about, ” said Susan Donley, publisher and CEO of Stria.

This event was solution-oriented, focusing on three specific areas: Digital Communications, Housing and Personal Finance.

“I was astonished we were not having this national conversation,” said Elizabeth White, author of Fifty-five, Under-employed, and Faking Normal and one of three main speakers of the night. She shared her story of going from high-earning consultant to jobless, only to find she was very much not alone. “What we see is millions of people who have landed here and are facing downward mobility for the first time.”

White said, “One of the things that’s been puzzling to me – when you look at how much the 50+ market spends — on cars, consumer goods, entertainment, travel — when we’re facing workplace age discrimination, when we can’t work and have to work — what’s puzzling to me is the response of the business community.” She added, “Here we are in this situation with huge numbers of people struggling and not having a conversation.”

Jeff Tidwell, CEO and founder of Next For Me, devoted to the workplace and financial health for people over 50, put it this way: “We need to blow up the workplace.”

One major area that affects every workplace is technology. Clare Martorana, an expert in the digital realm who is working with the U.S. Digital Service to reinvent Vets.gov, surprised the crowd with a statistic. “Over 60% of the transactions at the Veterans Administration are still done on paper,” she said. “Transforming the workplace is a really critical thing for us to focus on.”

Martorana, whose background includes executive stints at Everyday Health and WebMD, is devoted to finding ways to use innovative technology to improve lives. But, she said, the burden is on the employee, too.

Don’t be “the codgy 50-something-year-old in the room that dismisses these things,” she said, citing employees who are “stubborn and arrogant, because basically they’re scared. They’re being obstructionist in the workplace.” She stressed the importance of embracing new technology, saying, “It’s not an age thing; I think it’s an open-minded thing and an open-heart thing.”

Positivity was a recurring suggested strategy. Ryan Frederick, founder and CEO of Smart Living 360, a company devoted to finding ways to provide sustainable, thriving environments as we age, urged awareness from another angle.

“We can’t be naïve about the challenges we face, but I think there’s a real opportunity for us to understand the benefits. You look at the research around longevity and a big piece of it is lifestyle decisions: What is the purpose of this new stage? How do I stay physically active and socially connected? And housing is a big part of that. It’s helpful if we develop our visions for what we want this to look like.”

Different models need to exist, he said. “It used to be we lived together in a village construct and you helped out by having a relationships. I think there’s an opportunity to go back to where we once were.”

While developers may view new concepts as risky, Frederick said it’s time for reinvention. “There’s a thirst for something different. That thirst is not just for people who are older, but for all of us.”

While there are difficult problems surrounding aging and housing, the key is to “tell the story in a way that can be realistically aspirational. We see these extra years of longevity bonus as is incrementally positive and, in some cases, transformative for people.”

Brainstorming sessions produced long lists identifying important areas to address and offering solutions:

Digital Communication
  • Develop multigenerational partnerships for distribution of real voices and real stories for specific goals and cross promotion
  • Online classes, gaming should target multigenerational audiences
  • News organizations need dedicated longevity beats
  • Engage younger people to understand realistic aging; messaging that can resonate across generations
  • Tap into faith communities for support, communication
  • Make tools easy
Personal Finance
  • Find ways to build confidence
  • Shift the narrative around jobs for older adults
  • Create a Netflix series on finances
  • Help important voices such as The Washington Post’s Michelle Singletary to be heard
  • Make more good jobs available
  • More people need to talk more about finances
Integrated Housing
  • Zoning laws need to allow for different kinds of intergenerational dwellings
  • More affordable mixed-income, intergenerational and village model housing are needed, along with more connectivity
  • Taxes breaks should be given if a house is renovated for aging, as home insurance does with smoke detectors, etc.
  • Accessible/universal designs (and funding) need to address form and function
  • Housing issues need to shift out of the healthcare and medical industry and into home- and community-based social services

“What happens next?!” shouted a voice in the crowd after the ideas were presented.

Wendi Burkhardt, CEO and founder of Silvernest roommate matching service, was ready with an answer. “We’re hoping everybody walks away and feels empowered to go drive change,” she said. “If we wait for somebody else to do it, it’s not going to happen.”

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Ann Oldenburg

Ann Oldenburg, who started her career at The Washington Post and was a longtime culture writer at USA Today, is assistant director of the Journalism Program at Georgetown University. An advocate of lifelong learning, she is a member of the first cohort of Georgetown's new Aging & Health master’s program.

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