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Successful Aging: Remember that there are also positives to getting older

Q. I recently spent the afternoon with my eight-year-old granddaughter who asked, “Grandma, do you know you have a lot of lines on your face? Does that mean you are old?” I proceeded to describe my wrinkles as smile lines, signs I’ve lived a happy life, and continued to explain and perhaps over-explain my wrinkles. It struck me – why was I so defensive? In today’s world, I don’t think looking your age is a good thing. Is there a way that I and our society can get over this? Your thoughts? N.S.

Dear N.S.,

Children are honest in sharing their thoughts. Your granddaughter may have just been curious. However, I think there is more to your answer and a larger story.

Our society sends us messages about aging – from the fashion industry, movies and the media. Often that message is negative.

Fortunately, how we look and talk about aging is getting a lot of attention. One reason is that the aging population is one of the biggest demographic changes in recorded history. As Americans live longer and healthier lives, it is clear we need to adjust both attitudes toward aging and the systems that support well-being in later life. It is essential to change the conversation about aging.

Fortunately, there is a national effort to address this challenge that had its initial launch in 2014 – and it’s ongoing. It’s called the Reframing Aging Initiative sponsored by the Frameworks Institute in partnership with Leaders of Aging Organizations. Eight national age-focused organizations have formed an unprecedented partnership to create a better public understanding of older adults’ needs and contributions to society, using communication tools and extending outreach for a more informed conversation about aging and its implications for our communities.

Here are some of the public misperceptions that the Frameworks Aging Initiative has undertaken.

Aging is someone else’s problem, thinking of older persons as the “other” group having nothing to do with us.

Aging is negative and undesirable, believing it as essentially decline and deterioration.

Aging evolves as a personal or family problem that has little to do with society.

Aging is overwhelmingly fatalistic – not much we can do about it – and is to be dreaded.

Aging is fueled by fear and misperceptions, which are obstacles to addressing policies affecting older adult health.

Change can begin with the language we use, both verbal and written. Here are a few examples offered by the Frameworks Initiative that is a reminder to all of us who write about the subject as well as those who casually speaking about it.

Instead of using words to describe the growing older population as a “tidal wave,” “tsunami,” or other catastrophic words, try talking about changing demographics in a positive way such as “As Americans are living longer and healthier lives…”

Instead of using the words, “seniors,” “elderly,” “aging dependents” that evoke stereotypes, use neutral terms such as “older people,” “older adults,” “older Americans.” Also use inclusive terms, such as “we” and “us.”

Instead of using “struggle,” “battle,” “fight,” and other conflict words to describe the aging experience, consider referring to aging as a dynamic process that can lead to new abilities and knowledge that can benefit our communities.

Instead of referring to “ageism” without an explanation, try to include a definition such as “Ageism is discrimination against older people because of negative and inaccurate stereotypes.”

We are beginning to see some changes. Here are just two examples.

Allure will no longer use the term “anti-aging” in their advertisements. According to Allure, “Whether we know it or not we’re subtly reinforcing the message that aging is a condition we need to battle – think antianxiety meds, antivirus software or antifungal spray.

In 2018, CVS which operates 10,000 pharmacy drug stores announced it will stop airbrushing photographs of models in ads for its in-store brand beauty products. That means wrinkles will not be removed. The company also announced it will introduce the “CVS Beauty Mark” this year, a watermark on images to indicate it has not been materially altered.

N.S., change is happening slowly. Clearly, there is a downside to aging. Yet if we focus only on challenges and not the pleasure and opportunities, we are depriving ourselves of what could be the best time in life. So enjoy your granddaughter, continue to smile a lot and share your joy of living.

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