A new report from an eight-member expert collaborative, Leaders of Aging Organizations (LAO), and the FrameWorks Institute proposes to reclaim the social narrative on what aging really means by building better perceptual connections between health care experts, advocates, and the thousands of Americans who turn 65 every day.
"The ultimate goal of this project is to increase the public understanding necessary to promote well-being for older adults and their families and to ensure their full participation in society. Despite growth in our understanding of how to improve aging, much of this knowledge isn't penetrating public discourse," said Laura A. Robbins, founder of Laura A. Robbins Consulting, LLC, and manager of the LAO project. "It will take all of us to make that happen - and this report is a critical first step."
Breaking from traditional public opinion research, "Gauging Aging: Mapping the Gaps between Expert and Public Understanding of Aging in America" used methods from psychological anthropology to delve deep into connections between attitudes and actions around aging. The report uncovers an important disconnect between pessimistic public opinion and different perceptual reflections from experts and advocates. This communication breakdown may hold the key for reframing how we think and talk about the universal process of getting older.
According to the report, public perceptions of aging describe this process as:
- Someone Else's Problem. Instead of perceiving aging as an inherent aspect of development, people tend to focus on "the aged" as an "otherized" group to which they do not belong.
- Undesirable. The public associates aging with decline and deterioration. A large percentage of interviewed individuals emphasized their belief that capability "faded away" with time.
- Inevitable. For most, this "fading away" also is tied to a strong sense of inevitability - a resignation to "slowing or breaking down" as a central aspect of growing old.
- Isolated. A majority of the public perceive old age not only as an outside obstacle or opponent, but also as a personal or familial problem and not a challenge that society shares.
- Fatalistic. Intimately tied to these perceptions are fears of decline, depression, and dependence. Such fears not only imbue the aging process with dread, but also impede support for policies and solutions that actually address the challenges (and opportunities) associated with age.
- Out of Sight and Out of Mind. Fear and misperception ultimately fuel a lack of attention to older adult health. But keeping aging "off the radar" does little to remedy impediments to health as we grow older.
In contrast, experts in aging believe that advances in research, care, and services to extend longevity have opened a world of possibilities for personal, social, and economic contributions by the fast-growing older adult population. These contributions can be leveraged for the benefit of all, but that entails adjusting public institutions, policies, and infrastructure by chipping away at outdated ways of thinking.
"Aging is something we all experience. It isn't a barrier or a battle, but it is a characteristic of who we are - and who we are becoming - and it needs to be reflected in public thinking, public policy, and public discourse," said Eric Lindland, PhD, a senior researcher with the nonprofit FrameWorks Institute and a lead author of the report. "Not surprisingly, that type of change begins with the public - or more specifically, with our ability to convey a truer vision for what aging in America really means for us all."
Dr. Lindland and his colleagues used methods from psychological anthropology to identify and assess the deep, underlying cultural models that people routinely bring to the topic of aging. The use of these novel methods led to FrameWorks Institute's receipt of the prestigious MacArthur Foundation Award for Creative and Effective Institutions in 2015.
As a first step toward getting the public and professionals to see the same future through a reframed conversation, LAO members - AARP, the American Federation for Aging Research, the American Geriatrics Society, the American Society on Aging, The Gerontological Society of America, Grantmakers in Aging, the National Council on Aging, and the National Hispanic Council on Aging - will discuss findings in an online town hall with stakeholders from across the aging field on May 5 at 2 p.m. ET (visit http://bit.ly/ReFramingAging for more details). Efforts also are ongoing to secure support for subsequent FrameWorks research to design and test specific strategies that will take report findings from paper to practice in the United States.