Ageism about face….

At a recent national conference on Aging in America, I was heartened by the collected energy of thousands of people focused on aging. In cafes and restaurants the excitement and enthusiasm crackled and bounced off the cavernous hotel lobby walls. Groups of attendees leaned in to each other to exchange ideas, notes, resources and strategies. I thought how wonderful it would be if we could infuse the general public – our culture- with the same degree of excitement about aging.

However, at this conference as at many others, I noted how numerous were the presentations about the problems and diseases associated with aging. How we love to solve problems. Nonetheless as a practitioner of positive aging I gravitated towards those that reinforced my outlook and practice. A very exciting one in particular was“Research to Reframe Aging”, a presentation by Nat Kendall-Taylor from Frameworks Institute

Because we were at an aging conference, he addressed ageism and suggested ways to dismantle it through re-framing. The principles of reframing are valuable for any field from communicating about climate change to unpacking sexism and racism. The fields using reframing techniques are described on their website.

The work at the Institute is based on the notion that “people make decisions based on shared cultural values” and the research focus is on what the experts want to communicate, how they do so, what needs to change in the message to prompt the desired response. And, in order to make these changes, how to surface the cultural biases inherent in both the messages and the potential audience.

I want to share some of the ideas that were presented about ageism and the connection to my own work with cultural values. The reframing process brings attention to the way we think and talk about aging and how we practitioners and elders reinforce ageism in younger people by the language we use. Even when we advocate for new policies and programs we are activating bias in our audiences by “ageistic talk”.

Biases are explicit and implicit; explicit biases are those that are obvious to everyone (although sometimes not to ourselves); implicit biases are unconscious and based on unexamined assumptions. These implicit biases and assumptions determine how we hear, think and act in response. Our biases and assumptions are formed through interactions with family and cultural systems, such as education and the media, and begin at a very early age. Although I am familiar with these ideas from Transformative Learning and Deep Ecology there was much to learn from Framing Institute’s work.

So how do we reframe our messages?
By becoming aware of our reactions, the underlying values and then changing what is implicit in the messages we send. An example of one very useful for me is what Nat calls “Decline Fatalism”, that is the assumption that decline is inevitable. Using this as a lens is very useful in unearthing my unquestioned assumptions and habitual communications.

Decline Fatalism is prevalent in our culture and is reinforced by the majority of publicity about aging being fear-based and centered on the ravages of disease. On the other hand in California our tendency is to gather our elders in places where their vibrancy and joy for life go unseen. There are many people like my artist friend Leonard who, in his mid-nineties, confessed to joyfully waking up every day pronouncing “Good! Another day to paint ….and love my wife!”

Later in the conference I attended a group where we shared our passions and interests. I was impressed by a man who consults with start-ups while helping his daughter turn her draft-horse rescue project into an equine therapy center; he is also learning his fourth language, writes books and articles, travels, plans to go skydiving next month (not his first time) and pursues several other interests. Oh by the way he is in his eighties. He presents an exciting image of aging –
How can we use images like this to counteract all the medication ads in the media and all the other sources of the “age as a disease” myth?

I have been monitoring the insidiousness of Decline Fatalism and my own regular internal battles with it. How to counteract those messages? What ideas do you have?

Last year I asked a class of 10 year olds what they expected to see in a building with “senior” in its name. I heard them describe a convalescent hospital with people in wheelchairs staring into space and talking to themselves. It was with great delight that the seniors in the room showed the students the theatre, art studios, exercise room, computer lab in the building and then described their current commitments to writing, painting, acting, adventure travel, dancing and so on. One of the girls was amazed to discover that seniors text and tweet and Instagram just as she and her friends did.

We have to start dismantling ageism in younger and younger people if 10 year olds are already so deeply biased.

I have written –and consciously believe –that the elders in this country constitute a vast untapped resource of social capital, and now my questions are:
How to describe that in appropriately dynamic terms? Terms that will not reinforce the ageism in others (and self).
How to avoid describing those 80 and 90 year old men in incredulous terms? To forward emails with gorgeous fashionable older women as a novel idea?

Coming back to the individual – Nat Kendall-Taylor suggested calling ageing “Building Momentum”, which is a great description of the life experience skills and interests we are all accumulating. Building Momentum also implies that we keep moving forward not gazing with longing backwards to the past.

Building Momentum beats Decline Fatalism in my Book!


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