LeadingAge Magazine · November-December 2016 • Volume 06 • Number 06

Beginning the Conversation About Ageism

November 15, 2016 | by Jane Sherwin

LeadingAge’s new vision of “An America freed from ageism” aims to help all people develop their full potential.

LeadingAge members have long been aware of the rapid growth in America’s older adult population and the challenges this shift represents. The need for housing, staff and clinical support is vividly evident. But a growing number of organizations and policy makers are beginning to concentrate on another aspect of aging: the extent to which it is perceived as a loss of ability and hope rather than a third stage of growth filled with opportunity.

The word for this is “ageism,” which, like other ‘isms’ around race and sex, has destructive effects not only on morale but also on health itself. Growing numbers of organizations are beginning to address the challenges of ageism. Even “Camp Aging Insurrection,” a gathering sponsored by a senior living provider, was part of the 2015 Burning Man festival in Nevada.

As early as 1961, LeadingAge’s founders stated, “We are here to ensure that every older person has the right and the opportunity to develop his or her full human potential, regardless of age.” In accordance with this belief, LeadingAge’s new vision is “An America freed from ageism.” The challenge, as CEO Katie Sloan sees it, is to help members perceive the connection between this vision and their day-to-day service to clients.

Editor’s note: See Katie Sloan’s Vision column, “Our Bold Vision for the Future,” in this issue.

Kirsten Jacobs, LeadingAge’s associate director of dementia and wellness education, is well aware of the need to help members and their staff move beyond ageism.

“We are at the beginning of a conversation,” says Jacobs. “What would an America entirely freed from ageism look like, not only as we enter older adulthood, but all our lives? Aging is an experience we all share. We want to celebrate it as an opportunity for growth.”

Leading Age is already working to address a variety of challenges faced by its members, according to Jacobs. Why, for example, despite the extreme demographics, do donations to older adult needs make up only about 2% of philanthropic giving? Why do geriatricians as a specialty receive lower levels of reimbursement? Leading Age “recognizes that ageism is a part of these phenomena,” says Jacobs. A move toward a richer and more positive understanding of old age can contribute in a variety of ways to meeting these challenges.

What exactly are the symptoms of ageism? These range from the larger assumptions about the conditions and consequences of aging to the use of demeaning language about older people. In September 2016, Leading Age held an “All Staff Ageism Dialogue” to help raise the consciousness of both staff and members.

“How do we identify ageism in our daily operations? We begin with language, and then look at behaviors and attitudes, both personal and professional,” says Jacobs. “We look at our own unique perspective, and then at the work of other organizations, of which there are many.” Jacobs refers, for example, to the Frameworks Institute, a partnership of aging-focused organizations in the United States, the International Council for Active Aging, and Face Aging MN.

“These days, the conversations about aging, when they do occur, are generally focused on loss and fear,” says Gayle Kvenvold, president and CEO of LeadingAge Minnesota, a partner in Face Aging MN. 

“We are part of a grand design to change the conversation around aging, from a burden we shoulder to a responsibility and opportunity that we all embrace.” In 2015, LeadingAge Minnesota, in partnership with Care Providers of Minnesota, launched the Face Aging MN campaign, designed to raise awareness about the issues that accompany the reality of a rapidly aging society. The partnership grew out of LeadingAge Minnesota’s advocacy work at the state level.

“We’re a state with a history of strong public service and a lot of activism. How we perceive things has a powerful influence on our actions. It’s going to take a lot of us working together to change how we view aging, so we asked ourselves, “How can we harness the public will to build on this tradition in the service of aging well? To keep Minnesota a great place not just to grow up, but to grow older and to age well?”

“Face Aging MN,” says Kvenvold, “begins by disruption, to attract attention. We will move into education and informing, action, and then transformation.” Kvenvold says transformation is not something that occurs overnight, “but we must have the public engaged. Part of our overall goal is to engage people on 2 fronts: to help people talk about what aging well means to them and to have caregiving treated as an honored profession, attractive to a whole new group of people. How people view aging is key to accomplishing these goals.”

Kvenvold emphasized that ageism is a practical matter. 

“We face aging every single day with an embrace of the possible, but our members may not understand how some of their challenges, such as a workforce crisis, are embedded in a stereotype of what it means to be older. When ageism is absent, the idea of aging is viewed in the positive and providing care for an older adult will be a valued profession.”

Claiming Our Age

Amy Gorely, vice president of strategy and outreach for Carolina Meadows, a life plan community in Chapel Hill, NC, says “Too many people believe youth is the gold standard, but it doesn’t have to be that way.”

In 2015 Amy focused on ageism while a Fellow of LeadingAge’s Larry Minnix Leadership Academy, and developed a campaign with the slogan Be Bold, Claim Old.

“In the Academy we were challenged to identify problems we face in aging services, and everything kept pointing to ageism. It’s a complex issue, like any social justice issue, and an important first step is to raise awareness,” Gorely says. “Be Bold, Claim Old rallies people to accept and celebrate every age. It’s about turning from dread of old age, to claiming something of value.”

Following her Academy work, Gorely was invited to participate in a tour by Dr. Bill Thomas, founder of The Eden Alternative and creator of The Green House® model, who is also working to change the experience of aging in America. Gorely is now initiating an anti-ageism campaign at Carolina Meadows.

“Our CEO and COO are excited. We want to work on deepening the understanding of our own behavior as an organization that supports older adults. What language do we use? What are we doing that may unintentionally promote ageist ideas?” The organization plans to hold discussions at the board level and with staff, and the formation of a residents’ committee on ageism, along with use of a video she has made.

Gorely is also working with the Partnerships in Aging Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Together they have begun conversations on ageism within the larger community and are developing a toolkit for others in the industry to use.

Our Field’s Important Role

Tackling ageism is long overdue work, says Roger Landry, M.D., CEO of Masterpiece Living, which offers research-based initiatives in support of successful aging within retirement communities.

“Our language and attitudes are still rooted in the almshouses of the late nineteenth century. Rather than looking at aging as a third stage of growth, we marginalize older adults or ‘send them out to pasture.’ We think of them as something that has to be paid for, or as children, who get to play while we ‘take care’ of them.”

One advantage to the current size of American’s older population is that they are part of the boomer generation, known to challenge norms and stereotypes at least since the 1960s. This group, now reaching retirement age, tends to have little patience with ageism. Landry says that they are already driving seismic changes in senior living communities and our larger society.

“We see a growing interest from large churches and from country clubs with residential living. Cities and towns are coming to us, saying they want to be attractive to older adults. The culture is going to change because of the power of demographics.”

Landry says that LeadingAge members interested in addressing ageism should regard themselves as the experts they are and be leaders of a major shift in culture. The goal is not adjustments to policy and routines, but the creation of an environment where the physical, mental, social, and spiritual aspects of life are closely nurtured, and older adults are viewed as having potential to grow, as long as they live.”

Landry observes that, as for any cultural shift, “Initiatives to combat ageism only work when leadership is strongly committed to a new paradigm.”

Fighting Ageism in Every Aspect of Operations

Presbyterian Senior Living, based in Dillsburg, PA, and serving 6,000 residents in 4 states, has a long-term commitment to removing ageism.

Image: PSL_CathedralVillage_145 
Presbyterian Senior Living sees ageism as “a barrier we create in our minds as an excuse not to try something,” and works to remove it.
Presbyterian Senior Living

“Ageism is a barrier we create in our minds as an excuse not to try something, and it’s incredibly destructive to our society,” says Alicia Fenstermacher, corporate director of community life.

“In 2011 we launched a partnership with Masterpiece Living to remove ageism from our environment, our speech, and everything we do, and by 2013-14 the majority of our communities were involved. But it’s not easy, and doesn’t happen overnight,” says Fenstermacher.

“With evaluations and empirical data, we see that, with the changes we are making, our residents show a stronger focus on both their physical and intellectual living, and their spiritual and social wellbeing, too. We’re able to encourage a strong sense of purpose in their lives and learning new skills or better use of the skills they already have.”

At PSL’s fourth annual retreat, “Successful Aging Champion,” 14 of its 15 communities were present, both staff and residents of many ages.

“The focus this year was ‘Don’t let age be your barrier.’ Instead, try something new, and take back something different to your community,” says Fenstermacher.

“We expect people over 65 to be different, but participants learned that this is not the case. Those 40 years apart in age discovered how much they had in common. Only 20 minutes into one exercise we could feel the change in mood, the increased comfort level, and the pride in commonalities.”

Fenstermacher says, “We explored challenging the ageism we impose on ourselves. What do we say to someone who says ‘I’m too old?’ And in the end we discovered that we are not looking at residents and staff as 2 different types anymore.”

PSL addresses ageism in every aspect of operations. In hiring, for example, interviewers look for candidates who understand the value of relationships and empathy, and residents’ need to have control of their lives. These standards are part of annual reviews, as well. And in each community, PSL works to have a “culture change champion” for best practices and training.

“We encourage staff to call each other out, in a loving way, when ageism is evident,” says Fenstermacher.

Suggested Reading About Combatting Ageism

Jane Sherwin is a writer who lives in Belmont, MA.