Attitudes on Aging

May 10, 2017

By April Callen, Strategy and Outreach Associate, Frameworks Institute

We are a nation of problem-solvers. When we see an opportunity, we figure out how to seize it. And when we see that something isn’t working, we rethink our approach. We need to draw on our ingenuity so we can communicate more effectively about aging in America.

Older people are powering our society as they live longer, healthier lives. Yet most Americans hold deeply negative views about aging—so much so that we go to great lengths to avoid serious conversations about what it means to grow old in a youth-centric society and how we can do so dynamically. Research shows that we don’t even identify ourselves as older people, even when we are in our later decades—and when our laugh lines clearly show it.

Social media share from toolkit.

We may have hushed conversations about “other” people who are old, but we don’t often concede that “we” are old—and we rarely do so loudly and proudly. When we do talk about aging, it’s often about “other” people—and rarely about “us.” This kind of talk reflects classic “Us vs. Them” thinking, and it creates a gaping cognitive distance between whom we align with and support as a society—and whom we don’t. It contributes to and exacerbates ageism.

It also mutes conversations about one of the most remarkable transformations of our time: the fact that, over the last century, scientific and medical advances have extended average life expectancy at birth by two to three decades.

Our collective silence around this unprecedented demographic phenomenon has led to collective inaction on the political and policy front.

Because we don’t talk about aging, we don’t have the policies and practices in place to support our population as we age, and we aren’t having the conversations we need to put them there.

That’s not good for anyone—our families, our friends, our communities, our society, and, if we’re willing to face it, ourselves.

We need change—and we need it now, as the population of older people swells. We need an attitude adjustment on aging in America: We need to embrace it and its implications for our society. The good news is we have the tools to do so.

The FrameWorks Institute, a think tank in Washington, DC, recently published new research into how advocates can spark a more productive conversation about aging in America—one that frames it as gaining momentum as we grow older rather than fighting a losing battle against time or trying to stay forever young. Gaining Momentum, a communications toolkit, explores and explains a set of studies and evidence-based resources that advocates can use to communicate more effectively.

Here are a few examples:

Words matter. FrameWorks researchers found that some terms of reference are more productive than others. Research participants associated words like elder, senior citizen, and senior with negative beliefs about older people, such as frailty and computer illiteracy. The field’s preferred term, “older adult,” cued more productive thinking about competency, but at the same time, called to mind someone in his or her 50s—not the target demographic. For this reason, FrameWorks recommends using the term “older people,” which triggered productive thinking about people in their 60s and beyond.

A call for justice beats a plea for sympathy. Values are cherished cultural ideals that help people understand why an issue matters. In controlled testing, the value of Justice—the idea that our society should treat all people equallywas particularly effective at orienting public thinking about aging toward a systemic perspective. It elevated support for policies that expand opportunities for older people and support healthy aging.

Comparing aging to building momentum dramatically shifts perceptions of aging. This metaphor opens a new way to think and talk about aging—something counter to currently available cultural idioms such as “fighting” aging or the importance of “staying young.” Also, an innovative test of how messaging affects people’s implicit bias showed that this metaphor reduced people’s subconscious ageism by a remarkable 30 percent.

You can find guides on communication themes to avoid and alternatives, charts to help anticipate how your messages might go astray, and sample communications at frameworksinstitute.org/toolkits/aging.

This comprehensive set of framing research and resources was commissioned and shepherded by the Leaders of Aging Organizations, a collaborative network of eight leading aging-focused organizations including: AARP, American Federation for Aging Research, American Geriatrics Society, American Society on Aging, The Gerontological Society of America, Grantmakers in Aging, National Council on Aging, and National Hispanic Council on Aging.

Funding for the initiative has been provided by AARP, Archstone Foundation, The Atlantic Philanthropies, Endowment for Health, Fan Fox and Leslie R. Samuels Foundation, The John A. Hartford Foundation, The Retirement Research Foundation, Rose Community Foundation, and The SCAN Foundation. The project is managed by Laura Robbins of Laura A. Robbins Consulting, LLC.

Backed by a powerful force of advocates who are ready to put them into action, these reframes are sure to gain momentum fast. Stay abreast of the conversation on Twitter at #ReframingAging.


This post is part of the “Older Adults & Aging” series of the Institute for Public Health’s blog. Subscribe to email updates or follow us on Twitter and Facebook to receive notifications about our latest blog posts.

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