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Successful Aging: 7 ways to think differently about age

Last week we addressed a question by N.S., who wrote that aging is getting a bad rap. She suggested we needed a campaign to emphasize that old is good without referring to cheese or wine.

The FrameWorks Institute, a think tank in Boston, created an initiative titled “Reframing Aging” to address what it says our nation needs: an attitude adjustment about aging.


The initiative identified several themes found to be effective to boost knowledge, attitudes and policy preferences on aging issues, all part of this attitude adjustment. They reflect the realities about aging:

We are a nation of problem solvers: Americans solve problems with ingenuity. If something isn’t working, we figure out what is wrong and make the necessary adjustments. Older adults are known to be adapters and innovators.

Momentum increases: With age, we gain experience and wisdom which moves us forward. Although we are living longer and more healthful lives, society has not yet figured out how to harness this momentum and change.

Justice and equality rank high: Society is not treating older people as equals. They often are marginalized, which minimizes their contributions to society.

Ageism needs to be defined: Ageism is discrimination based on age. When directed to older people, it assumes that they are less competent than those younger. Such discrimination against older adults can have a negative effect on their employment, financial security, self-concept and more.

We need examples of ageism: Ageism in the workplace is one example. When people have negative stereotyped beliefs that old adults are inflexible, cannot learn new procedures and information and are less competent than those younger, their employment and retention opportunities are limited.

Age biases may be implicit: People often are unaware of their own biases and prejudices. Exposure to negative messages from the media, movies and advertisements shape our thinking and judgements about older adults. And few can escape holding some prejudices. The late Dr. Robert N. Butler, noted geriatrician and founder of the National Institute on Aging wrote in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Why Survive: Being Old in America,” “... a deep and profound prejudice against the elderly is found in some degree in all of us.”

Inventive solutions need to be identified: We need to include examples of what society can do differently by harnessing the energy and ability of older adults to contribute to communities. An example is the Generation to Generation campaign launched by to mobilize 1 million adults over 50 to help young people thrive and unite all ages to create a better future.


Given these themes for an attitude adjustment, FrameWorks identified communication practices that should be avoided. (Note: These are important “don’ts” but may not be applicable in all cases.)

Don’t lead a story with demographic shifts: Using terms such as a silver tsunami, gray wave or rapidly increasing population suggests we will be overwhelmed with older people.

Don’t talk about aging as a civil rights issue: It suggests that when comparing ageism to racism or sexism, one might conclude that ageism is not so bad. Additionally, thinking of ageism just as a civil rights issue narrows its definition to situations that can only be addressed by litigation.

Don’t use language that refers to older people as “other”: Avoid terms such as aging population, elderly, senior citizens, seniors and the vulnerable. Pay attention to pronouns. Instead of “they” or “them,” use “we” and “us.” (Note: This seems to work most, but not all, of the time.) Avoid phrases that imply aging is happening to someone else. Example: Change “what older people need” to “what we need when we are older.”

Don’t be overly positive: Having examples of extraordinary older adults makes a point that aging does not necessarily mean overall simultaneous decline. Positive storytelling is important but balance is equally important.

FrameWorks invites everyone to join in the reframing effort. We need to tell a common story as a way to drive meaningful social change by defining, elevating and advancing age issues. All of us are — or will be — stakeholders in this effort.

N.S., your suggestion of needing a campaign on aging was “right on.” Thank you for drawing that need to our attention.

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