Why Is Aging So Hard to Sell?

04/09/2015 08:54 am ET | Updated Oct 07, 2016

Sometimes the causes we know and care the most about are, paradoxically, the ones we are least able to explain or "sell" to others. In fact, the more we know and care, the more our powers of persuasion seem to fail us. If you work in or around the field of aging, this may ring a bell.

Despite all your good work, you may have been told that aging is boring, depressing, too expensive, or simply not a priority. The public, or much of the public, just does not get it, it seems. They may not care at all, or they may regard "your" issue very differently than you do, trivializing it, opposing your efforts, or envisioning very different solutions. (It's not just aging, of course. If you have expertise in any number of other fields -- think health care reform, climate science, criminal justice, or early childhood education -- you know the feeling.)

For those of us who have devoted our working lives to the challenges and opportunities posed by an aging society, this is mildly annoying at best, deeply frustrating at worst. We are acutely aware that we are (all) living in a moment of historic change. We know the aging of the U.S. and the world population represents a demographic shift that is both profound and permanent. We know that it will affect every area of our collective and individual lives for decades, if not centuries. And we know that, for the most part, the world is no more ready to cope with aging-associated problems than it is ready to seize the unique opportunities an aging society presents.

The problem is that the general public perceives and evaluates these facts very differently that the experts. This has been true for as long as I can remember, but I would argue that we should view this not as a dead end but as a chance to course correct. The problem is not a lack of passion, commitment, or expertise among aging professionals, nor cold-heartedness, distractedness, or dimness on the part of the American public. The problem lies in how we communicate. And that is something we can improve.

Important new research conducted by the Frameworks Institute can help. Gauging Aging: Mapping the Gaps between Expert and Public Understandings of Aging in America details and evaluates the very different ways that the general public and the professional elite regard the issue of aging. The FrameWorks Institute, winner of the 2015 Macarthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions, is known for identifying the most effective ways to talk about complicated social issues by using rigorous cognitive and social science research to develop a deep understanding of public attitudes and what information might help people better understand and engage on critical issues.

The Gauging Aging study was commissioned and funded by Leaders of Aging Organizations, a group administered by Grantmakers In Aging that includes AARP, the American Federation for Aging Research, the American Geriatrics Society, the American Society on Aging, the Gerontological Society of America, the National Council on Aging, and the National Hispanic Council on Aging. IT is supported by grants from AARP, the Archstone Foundation, The Atlantic Philanthropies, the John A. Hartford Foundation, the Fan Fox and Leslie R. Samuels Foundation, The Retirement Research Foundation, and the Rose Community Foundation. The high level of cooperation between organizations on this project represents an important step forward in its own right, and bodes well for progress in the research process and the effective use of this information to communicate better and advance our work.

Through interviews with aging experts and members of the public (ages 21 to 64), Gauging Aging identifies six key elements of the public's views that may surprise those of us who work in aging, almost certainly contradict most of our core beliefs, and explain some of the disconnect between us.

1. A gap between the ideal and the real is central to understanding how the public sees aging. For a visual representation of the public's idealized view of aging, consider this advertising photo, in which healthy, wealthy couples use their leisure time and income to embark on a Grand European Tour. The public's view of "real" aging, however, is quite negative, characterized by deterioration, dependency, and "digital incompetence." No wonder the Frameworks Institute researchers conclude that the public sees aging as "an obstacle to be overcome or an opponent to fight against."

2. "Us versus them." The public's negative take on aging also marginalizes older adults ("them"), contributing to a zero-sum logic that says any investment made to help older adults comes at the expense of "the rest of us."

3. Individualism. Unlike many other cultures, Americans treasure individualism above almost all other values. As a result, the American public tends to hold individuals responsible for solving their own aging challenges. Did people make "good" lifestyle choices to preserve their health, like eating well, or make "responsible" investment decisions for retirement security? If not, any challenges in later life may be viewed as their own fault, and theirs to correct or endure. Aging professionals tend to see many more social determinants of how we age, and many worthwhile opportunities for government, community, and philanthropy to offer constructive support.

4. Inefficient government. Many members of the public, even those who believe in and support Social Security, often don't trust it or think it will be there for them. They also tend to see it as exclusively benefiting older adults. Aging professionals are much more likely to see the system as viable, indispensable, and to know that it is available to people of all ages, such as widows and widowers, dependent children, and disabled people.

5. Fatalism. This is in some ways a combination of #1, #4, and #3. If most older people are inevitably going to be sick and dependent, the thinking goes (see "real" aging), and Social Security is doomed (see #4), there is nothing that can be done to improve the lives of older adults, at least by society. Therefore there is no point in trying, and individuals are on their own (see #3).

6. Cognitive holes. Here the researchers are referring to what does not inform the public's thinking. A major cognitive hole: the surprising fact that most members of the public don't know or don't accept the view that aging represents the entire population getting older, rather than just individuals. (To those of us who sometimes feel that everything we read starts with the words, "by 2030, older adults will be 20 percent of the American population," this is hard to believe. But that is what makes this information even more useful!)

To aging professionals, demographic change indicates that we need to prioritize aging as a social issue and make decisions at the societal level to provide and improve infrastructure and programs to help older Americans and their families. The public, on the other hand, may feel that plenty has already been done, that "opportunities are out there if you'd only take them." Unlike the professionals, the public also generally does not accept ageism as a problem, and may not accept that there is any policy mandate arising from the aging of the population.

So what is to be done? The Frameworks Institute explains that most communications become bogged down by hidden forces. These forces, which can include invisible or unstated assumptions, preconceptions, mental images, and filters, are collectively referred to in social science as a "frame." Everyone has a "frame," whether we know it or not, and the frame we use determines how we interpret information and make decisions about issues large and small, rarely deviating from our own deeply held beliefs.

Another interesting framing phenomenon: competing frames can co-exist. So in the case of aging, people can believe that aging means having more free time, enjoying your family, and getting good at golf; but at the same time, that aging is an inevitable process of deterioration and disability that is so horrible you don't want to think about it.

For advocates, the frame is a force to be reckoned with, in part because of this corollary: if the facts don't match the frame, people throw out the facts. Since aging is also something that absolutely everyone (not just the experts) has experienced or knows something about, we cannot change someone's mind just by presenting competing information. We must first understand their frame.

The challenge of changing the way people think and feel and vote about aging will require a more informed and deliberate attempt to meet each other halfway and find common ground. Aging is literally a matter of life and death - about as important as issues get. There is no objective truth here. Neither the experts nor the public can be labelled right or wrong; we are just coming at the issue from different perspectives.

This FrameWorks report is an important first step, but the process is not complete yet. We need deeper and broader interviews that will help us create a set of tools: specific language, metaphors, examples, and stories to help us bridge the gaps. That will take resources, cooperation, and determination. I hope those of us who care about aging and are in a position to make this change happen will muster all three, because we're not getting any younger.