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Successful Aging: Four ways to change attitudes toward aging

Q At age 75, I think aging is getting a bad rap. It’s harder to get a job, greeting cards make fun of us, we old folks are seen as responsible for problems with Social Security and Medicare and movies don’t have enough of us as heroes. Shouldn’t we have a campaign about “old is good” and not refer to wine or cheese in the same breath? Is this a wild thought?

— N.S.

A Dear N.S.:

Your thought is not wild. In fact, it is timely.

An initiative titled “Reframing Aging” recently has been launched by the FrameWorks Institute, a Washington-based think tank. It emanates from eight leading national aging organizations and nine funders to develop a better narrative about aging.

This purpose is not to develop a catchy phrase for television or something to place on billboards or bumper stickers. It’s bigger than that.

Its goal is to increase public support for policies and practices that in turn will support a robust, healthy and age-integrated society. And to accomplish that, the “reframers” believe America needs an attitude adjustment about aging, similar to what you see as being needed.

Attitudes are difficult to change. Policies and laws may impact behavior, yet may do little to change attitudes and beliefs. If they did, we would not have racism, sexism, ageism, and a lot of other “isms.”

According to FrameWorks’ research, Americans do not think aging needs a public response. At the same time, we know that aging is misunderstood. The misperceptions are obstacles in creating productive policies and practices which in turn limit the potential of older people and limit others from meeting their needs. To change this situation, FrameWorks indicates we need a shift in the public’s understanding about aging America, an understanding that will create the political will for an age-integrated society that works for all generations.

Although FrameWorks’ message is for what it calls “mission-driven advocates,” I suggest that its message is for each one of us including the media, advertising firms, the entertainment industry, businesses, faith-based organizations, education institutions and more.


Here are four communication priorities that FrameWorks believes will change the conversation:

Redefine aging: We often refer to older people as those “people over there” having nothing to do with us. Frame Work’s research shows that negative assumption about aging cause people to disassociate themselves from older people with the belief that nothing can be done to improve aging outcomes. This approach is fatalistic and inaccurate.

Know that social environments and policies count: There is a public belief that the health and financial security of older people is entirely up to them, depending solely on their good decision making and planning. Yes, that’s important. However we need to realize this occurs in a larger context of social, health care and tax policies as well as adequate housing and transportation – all in the light of increased longevity. These aspects of society are not fixed and can be changed.

Be aware that ageism is real: Age discrimination or ageism is the only socially acceptable “ism” in the U.S. It is pervasive. According to Frame Works we tend to have a blind spot when it comes to ageism which makes it difficult to address if people believe a problem does not exist. Consequently information about ageism and age discrimination needs to appeal to a broad constituency accompanied by some solutions.

Know the consequences: The consequence of not addressing the needs and aspirations of our older population affects individuals, families and societies. Frame Works’ message is that we need to take collective action. Each of us is a stakeholder — if we plan to live a long life.

Los Angeles is taking a lead in improving the lives of older adults and Angelenos of all ages through its Purposeful Aging initiative by uniting public and private leadership, resources, ideas and strategies. You can follow the conversation by searching #PurposefulAgingLA on Facebook and Twitter.

With these priorities, FrameWorks has conducted a series of studies to come up with a common language that will ultimately reflect a positive change on how aging is perceived. Next week, we’ll share that language.

Thank you, N.S., for your timely question.

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