If you ask anyone who works in the field of aging services or policy about the biggest challenge we face, they might initially say, lack of funding, or lack of understanding of the issues, or lack of political will. But shortly, they will come to the more fundamental issue: the pervasive ageism in American society.
In 2014, a group of eight national organizations came together with this audacious question: how can we collectively change the way Americans think about aging? Now there are some answers. With the support of visionary funders, and working with the MacArthur Foundation award-winning FrameWorks Institute, we have just released a major new report to drive a productive narrative on aging issues, called Finding the Frame: An Empirical Approach to Reframing Aging and Ageism.
A new frame, a better understanding
The report tells us why this matters: “Aging is misunderstood in America and the misperceptions create obstacles to productive practices and policies. To change this dynamic, the field of aging needs to advance a set of core ideas that creates the shifts in public understanding essential to building the political will to create a more age-integrated society.” (page 4)
As you can imagine, confronting ageism is a complex and daunting challenge, but the report shows how empirically tested methods can be used effectively. The first challenge is to anticipate how the public understands aging, and how differently experts in the field understand it. For example:
- How should we approach aging? The public views aging negatively and thinks we need to battle against it. Advocates need to change the conversation, to help people embrace aging as a continuous process that involves both challenges and opportunities.
- What determines outcomes and who is responsible? One of the hardest things to change is the widespread belief each of us, as individuals, is responsible for our own fate in later life, rather than being a product of our environment.
- How big a concern is ageism? For most people, ageism is not a problem because is absent from their thinking. Aging experts, on the other hand, see ageism as an important concern.
- What can be done to ensure wellbeing in old age? Since changes in aging are irreversible and inevitable, the public believes that nothing much can be done to improve the aging experience. Aging experts feel, and know from evidence, that plenty can be done.
- What is the role of public policy? This is a critical issue at this point in our nation’s policy debate. For the public, which sees decline as the inevitable result of the aging process, policy has a limited role, while experts are convinced it has a central role in shaping the aging experience.
The realization that the public’s understanding of aging is so different from our own has come as a shock to many longtime professionals in the field. But now that we know the depth of that difference, what do we do?
Avoiding communication traps
One response is to avoid communication traps, or “ways of framing that can ensnare public thinking in unproductive evaluations and judgments.” (page 12) These include:
- The “Because Demography” Trap. This refers to our habit of presenting aging as a major and inevitable problem for both individuals and society. Terms like “silver tsunami” or “the demographic cliff” tap into fear that is not productive.
- The “Other Ism” Trap. This is the tendency to equate ageism to racism or sexism. This is not recommended, since the comparison can reinforce the sense that ageism is a small problem compared to these other issues.
- The “Living Proof” Trap, or “super senior” narrative. Trying to overcome negative aging stereotypes with example of extraordinary individual older persons is tempting, but ends up reinforcing the notion of individualism – if these winners overcame aging, why can’t you?
- The “Sympathetic Senior” Trap. Tugging on the public’s heartstrings only reinforces stereotypes that all older people are pitiful and vulnerable.
So now that we know what we are up against, and know the traps to avoid, how do we go about changing the way people understand aging?
New ways forward
The research conducted by the FrameWorks Institute suggests that the field coalesce around two narratives:
- Confronting Injustice, which advances a candid conversation about ageism; and
- Embracing the Dynamic, which casts the aging population as an opportunity for society.
Each of these narrative is effective, but in different ways, and in different situations. Let’s take a deeper dive into both.
The Confronting Injustice narrative has a strong positive impact on attitudes about aging and increases support for important policy directions. It includes these directions:
- Lead with the widely shared value of justice, and point out that our society does not treat older people as equals but rather marginalizes them.
- Name and define ageism, because so few people think about it or see it as a major issue.
- Offer examples, such as the fact that capable older people are often excluded from the workforce.
- Explain implicit bias, pointing out common stereotypes that portray all older people as frail, or irritable.
- Offer solutions, such as how we can look for ways to reduce premature judgments based on age alone.
The Embracing the Dynamic narrative boosts our sense of efficacy in improving aging outcomes and changes people’s implicit biases toward older people in remarkable ways. It includes these directions:
- Lead with the notion of ingenuity: Americans are problem solvers, and we can eliminate outdated practices and do things in a better way.
- Compare aging to forward momentum, showing that we gain momentum from built-up experience and wisdom as we age.
- Explain the problem, namely that we are living longer and healthier but have not figured out how to make the most of this positive change.
- Offer examples of inventive solutions, showing how older people are participating and contributing to their communities.
This extraordinarily important work also comes with a variety of training materials in Gaining Momentum: A FrameWorks Communications Toolkit. Take the time and make the effort to begin to use these finding in your own work.
From all of those involved in this effort over the past three years, we offer these words of encouragement:
“[This report will provide] advocates with a powerful way to help the public get smarter about the possibilities of effective aging policies. The evidence-based narratives equip advocates to raise awareness of ageism in a way that will attract an ever-widening circle of supports, rather than alienate bystander publics. Moreover, using these frames, the aging field is in position to benefit other efforts to build a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive America.
We offer this work as an important asset in the forward movement to a more equal, more inclusive society.” (page 32)
We have the tools – let’s make it so!