Aging is a fact of life, but ageism doesn’t have to be. LeadingAge, an organization whose membership is composed of not-for-profit aging service providers, has undertaken the task of ending ageism by educating the population about the strengths of older adults and the value they bring to society. LeadingAge’s efforts entail changing the perceptions of aging and eliminating notions that older adults are a burden to their families and society.
To overcome ageism, society needs a clear definition of what is meant by the term. “When we at LeadingAge talk about ageism, we describe it as the friction that we encounter throughout our daily lives in terms of the perceptions that people carry with them about aging,” says Kirsten Jacobs, MSW, Associate Director of Dementia and Wellness Education for LeadingAge. “These are generally negative perceptions that are particularly focused on older adults, though anyone can experience ageism throughout the life span.
“We know our culture holds negative beliefs about aging, and those negative beliefs have powerful individual and systematic manifestations,” Jacobs adds. “That’s what we’re looking at and hoping to be part of this larger movement to eradicate ageism.”
Moving forward to dispel incorrect assumptions about aging is important, Jacobs adds, since ageism pervades many areas of life. One of the most broadly known is in the area of employment discrimination. “This is one of the easiest areas to relate to,” says Jacobs, “because most of us have been employed at some point in our lives and can point to examples that we know personally. However, in terms of other places where ageism shows up, one of the areas of greatest concern is in healthcare, both in undertreatment and overtreatment of older adults.”
As an example, Jacobs points out that there are assumptions about older adults that often aren’t accurate—for instance, a widely held belief that depression is a normal part of aging. “This could lead to a lack of diagnosis of another health problem,” Jacobs points out. “Making an assumption that older adults are unhappy is not accurate, and in fact, from the U-shaped happiness curve, we actually know that the opposite is true—that people are happiest at the beginning and end of life.”
LeadingAge put forth its new vision for an America freed from ageism approximately a year ago. In that time, the organization has developed an anti-ageism task force to spearhead its efforts. The work centers on education and raising awareness about the need to combat ageism. The anti-ageism message is being funneled through LeadingAge’s membership, which consists of providers covering the full spectrum of services and support for older adults—i.e., independent housing, assisted living, nursing care, home-health care, hospice, and community-based programs.
“We have provider-members across the country that are hosting dialogues and looking more closely at their policies and procedures, having conversations among staff and elders,” says Jacobs. “More and more people are participating in this larger discussion about where ageism shows up and how to change it. We encourage and celebrate our providers that are doing this work and having these conversations alongside the older adults who live in their communities and with whom they work.”
To aid these discussions, Leading Age has developed quick casts and discussion guides that providers can use in their organizations to help people identify where ageism occurs in their lives and in their work. In addition, the organization is moving forward in collaboration with Virginia Commonwealth University to develop a video training and discussion guide on ageism. The training is designed to help healthcare professionals understand implicit bias, prejudice, negative messaging, stereotypes, and assumptions about ageism.
With a scheduled completion date of next summer, the guide will cover such topics as why ageism matters, ageism in culture and in person, and how to disrupt ageism. “We’re pretty excited to be embarking on this work with our amazing and capable partners at VCU,” says Jacobs.
Fortunately, there are some signs that the anti-ageism message is starting to be heard. Allure magazine recently announced it will no longer use the term “anti-aging,” since the implication is that growing older is a disease or condition that needed to be combated. In making the announcement, the magazine asserted, “Changing the way we think about aging starts with changing the way we talk about aging.”
Jacobs acknowledges that there are true health concerns among older adults that need to be addressed as part of the aging process. However, there is a balance that must be achieved in terms of identifying and treating real health issues versus making assumptions about aging that are far from universal.
“We’ve had some really good discussions using research from Frameworks Institute as a tool,” she says. “From that research, we know that people carry mental models about aging in their heads that often focus on extremes—on the one extreme, the older adult who is out there skydiving at 100, and at the other extreme, the elder who is experiencing extreme medical challenges and sitting alone in a nursing home.”
Instead of focusing on these two extremes, Jacobs stresses the need to communicate the full spectrum of aging. “It’s important to acknowledge the challenges inherent in aging while also discussing the strengths of getting older. There are strengths in older adults that people never speak of, such as the fact that people are often more resilient as they get older and experiencing more joy—the happiness curve I referenced earlier.”
Ultimately, Jacobs says, the objective is this: “We’re trying to get to the point where we are painting a complete and accurate picture of the lived experience of aging.”
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