Ageism is alive and well and so are discussions and debates about what it means and how worried we should be. One small example, the varied opinions expressed in response to a letter to the editor published in the New York Times.
When you’re immersed in gerontology research or practice it can be easy to forget that not everyone views aging and older adults the way you do (which I would say for aging professionals is overwhelmingly positively). I think this tension between the professional and non-professional views of aging intriguing and so was interested in a recent report by the Frameworks Institute. The report shares results from a study, developed and funded by an impressive collaboration of organizations dedicated to older adults and issues of aging. The study compared experts and members of the public in their beliefs about aging. The results are not based (and do not pretend to be) on a representative sample, but the authors raise interesting issues that have implications for aging-related policy.
Here are a few of the findings that I found most interesting:
- To experts aging is a normal process that starts from the day we are born. The effects of experiences through our lives are cumulative and are carried forward into old age. Aging is not, however, synonymous with disease or disability. In fact, aging provides opportunities and strengths as well as challenges. In contrast, the members of the public interviewed overwhelming saw aging as inevitable decline and deterioration. It is something to be fought against, not embraced.
- The experts tended to see increased longevity and the accompanying demographic shift to an older population as a collective issue that requires a collective response. It influences not only our approaches to health care, work, and retirement, but transportation, urban planning and so on. Social factors (e.g., education and work opportunities, race, gender) shape individual experiences of aging. Developing and improving the needed infrastructure and addressing these factors are policy issues. The public talked about aging in terms of the individual life course without any reference to larger demographic shifts or social determinants. They believe that the needed systems are already there, older adults just need to be educated about them and then take the initiative to access them.
- In fact, this issue of collective vs. individual responses came up quite a bit. One of the striking things was the “us vs. them” way in which the members of the public tended to talk about older adults. But, hello, you are aging too and will be an “older adult” yourself someday! Sorry. There is no us and them, there’s only us (hence my theft from Pogo). This separation of us from them clearly paralleled other beliefs. While experts, for example, note the economic, social, and political power of this growing sector of the population as well as their diversity, members of the public talked about older adults as a homogeneous group that is being left behind by rapid social changes that they just aren’t able to cope with. Life, they say, is harder now for older adults with families spread out and a struggling economy that makes the lives of older adults less financially stable and requires that they work longer. (I’m always a bit skeptical of these kinds of claims. Was aging really easier in, say, the Depression?)
Of course, aging is both a social and an individual experience. But overall, the experts tended to have a more balanced view of these two dynamics than the members of the public who were interviewed. There’s more in the report and I encourage anyone who is interested to take a read. Given the small, purposive samples, we can’t generalize the findings too far, but they raise good points for discussion.
So . . . discuss.