Why there’s nothing funny about ageist greeting cards


Dear readers,

This week’s column is a continuation of our conversation about ageism, noting that where you live matters. Among all of the states in the U.S., Colorado ranked low on what is called implicit age bias, meaning its residents scored low on prejudice against older people.


Ageism has been addressed through educational programs, tool kits, research projects, conferences, media events and books. Author and activist Ashton Applewhite is a good example with her book, “This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism.” We need all of these approaches to increase awareness and counteract ageism because it is subtle and pervasive.


Birthday cards are one area where ageism is relevant. The tone of birthday cards for children are upbeat. We celebrate birthdays in our younger years. At some point, the narrative changes, sometimes as early as age 30.


Age-stereotype birthday cards often “exaggerate the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease, emphasize dramatic age-related physical changes, portray older adults as unattractive and cranky and suggest they lack sexual interest or have inappropriate sexual interest,” writes Sheri Levy in “Psychology Today.” There is a pushback to such images and messages: birthday cards that celebrate aging.


In 2018, Janine Vanderburg who refers to herself as a community activist, launched the initiative “Changing the Narrative Colorado,” a strategic communications and awareness campaign designed to increase the understanding of ageism and to shift how Coloradans think about aging. The organization trains advocates, policymakers and other influencers of all ages in using evidence-based, cutting edge communications tools and messages developed by FrameWorks Institute and tailored for Colorado audiences. “Our goal is to educate, activate and advocate,” say Vanderburg. She adds, “to do that we complement workshops that reframe aging, end ageism and the business case for older workers, highlighting the negative effects of ageism to show people concrete things we can do in our own lives to combat ageism.”


Enter the greeting card story. We know that ageism is acceptable and embedded in our culture. Birthday cards seem to affirm that acceptability and Vanderburg wanted to do something about it.


She commissioned 22 artists ages 16 to 82 from across Colorado to design cards that celebrated instead of denigrating aging. Over 60 artists applied. They were selected based on the kinds of artwork submitted as well as their answers to the application which asked their opinions and experiences on aging and ageism.


So, what constitutes ageist messages? Here are a few examples.

  • “Don’t worry about getting older, just roll with the ‘paunches.’ “

  • “You know you are getting older when it takes twice as long to look half as good.”

  • “Your secrets are safe with your friends because they can’t remember them either.”

  • “You know you are getting older when your back goes out more than you do.”

Here are some positive ones which generally are fewer in number.

  • “Girlfriend – when we’re older we’re going to be SOB’s – spectacular older babes.

  • You are “a truly special person…may your birthday be as wonderful as you.”

  • “100 years old and you are simply a wonderful woman, a faithful friend, a generous spirit, a charming soul, a loyal confidante…and a fun personality.”

We see celebratory birthday cards for those whose birthdays end in zeros such as ’90s, ’80s and ’70s. That leaves out a lot of older birthdays.


Here are some examples of winning messages from Changing the Narrative birthday card project.

  • “Celebrate your seasons. Happy Birthday to majestic, wise and venerable you.”

  • “Walking through the garden of life brings wisdom. Happy Birthday wise on.”

  • “How lucky we are to celebrate another year. Happy Birthday!”

  • “She woke up, put on her birthday hat and said, “this calls for some champagne and shenanigans! Great plan girlfriend, count me in.”

The goal is not to sell cards, but rather to start conversations about ageism. Proceeds are used to contract artists to produce original designs and to support educating people about ageism and workplace discrimination against older workers. You can see the beautiful graphics as well as purchase cards at https://changingthenarrativeco.org/anti-ageist-birthday-cards/


I asked Vanderburg about ageist cards as a vehicle for humor, allowing us to laugh at ourselves making sure we don’t take ourselves too seriously. Her reply, “My message is clear; don’t send ageist birthday cards.”


Ageism continues to get increased attention during the pandemic as it relates to higher susceptibility, vaccine priorities and triage decisions when resources are scarce.


So dear readers, get vaccinated, stay safe and continue with the CDC guidelines. We’ll get there!


Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging, employment and the new retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. Contact Helen with your questions and comments at Helendenn@gmail.com. Visit Helen at HelenMdennis.com and follow her on facebook.com/SuccessfulagingCommunity