Gauging Aging: New Study Looks at Ageism in America

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It doesn’t take a concerted study by a think tank to reveal that ageism is flourishing in America. Ask anyone who’s attained A Certain Age about the feelings of invisibility, uselessness, even fear and scorn imposed by those around them.

Ageism is stereotyping and discriminating against individuals or groups on the basis of their age

But it may take that think tank—along with sweeping changes in policy—to make a dent in the age-old problem of ageism. And without some considered action, the problem will only become bigger. While much is made of the boost in the aging population prompted by the Baby Boomers, another truth is that the Millennials are now the largest generation in U.S. history. So about the time the last Boomers are leaving the planet, the first Millennials will turn 65. And the aging population will be larger than ever.

Enter the Think Tank

The FrameWorks Institute, an organization focused on “changing the conversation on social issues,” recently took a step into the fray by comparing how members of the public and professionals who work in the field view what it means to age in America.

FrameWorks described its research process as unique in focusing on “the assumptions and thought processes” behind people’s words, judgments, and opinions. The hope is that shining the light on how people think about aging will be the first move toward changing negative perceptions and introducing more opportunities for older people.

The results, published in Gauging Aging: Mapping the Gaps Between Expert and Public Understandings of Aging in America, revealed an ungreat divide.

Part of the divide, the experts in the field, tend to cling to the sunny view that advances in research, healthcare, and services have opened an array of new possibilities for older adults to contribute meaningfully to society. In contrast, the public’s many negative assumptions about aging, as well as a denial that ageism exists, get in the way of constructive policies to improve the lot of aging Americans.

The Experts’ Eyeview

The study called upon a group of experts on adult aging issues who are affiliated with eight organizations, including:

Together, the experts painted a mostly rosy picture of aging they would like to communicate to the public—emphasizing that while aging usually brings with it some declines in strength and the senses, it is a natural part of life and not a disease. They emphasized that more people are living longer, healthier lives while remaining active and productive. And given older newfound adults’ “enormous economic and social impact on American society,” they urged changes to the existing institutions, policies, and infrastructure.

The Public’s View of Aging

While acknowledging individual and cultural differences, the study interviewed dozens of members of the public about the perception of aging. Not surprisingly, it was less light and less enlightened than the one the experts espoused. The most prevalent view was summarized as “ideal vs. real” models of aging—a confusing disconnect between aspiring to a later life of leisure and time with family and friends to the entrenched perception of aging as a dreaded downward spiral into a “process of deterioration, dependency, reduced potential, family dispersal, and digital incompetence.” Neither view is a size that fits all.

The panel of researchers also parsed the reasoning behind the public’s common tendency to marginalize older people by adopting an “us vs. them” stance. Older people—the “them” in the equation—are often perceived as drains on the system. Policies and programs benefiting older Americans are seen as funneling funds away from all the deserving younger others. Hand in glove with that sentiment, the researchers found, is an emphasis on individuality, which translates into a belief that older Americans need to buck up and care for themselves rather than get support from the population as a whole.

A couple additional negative notions also seem to shape the way the public sees seniors. One is that the government is inefficient—especially at handling the demands of the Social Security system, which is seen as necessary but unstable. Another is the fatalistic feeling that little can be done to improve the future for American elders.

All this adds up to what the researchers deemed “cognitive holes.” Their conclusion: “To the extent that ageism is not even seen as a problem, efforts to address this issue are likely to be either misunderstood, or dismissed entirely.”

It was this conclusion that John Feather, CEO of Grantmakers in Aging, one of the groups included in the study, found “really, really depressing.” In a recent presentation titled Addressing Ageism in the Public Policy Arena, Feather noted that the most surprising finding for professionals in aging was that people do not use facts in formulating their frameworks for viewing aging. While refusing to accept that society as a whole is getting older, they collectively do not view ageism to be a problem—and that may be a clue to what makes it intractable.

“If it comes down between my understanding of how the aging process works and some new fact, I will discard the fact and retain the framework,” Feather says. “So just one more research project, just one more fact, just one more editorial is not going to make a difference if we don’t understand how those things are going to be absorbed in the way that people already absorb them.”

Going Forward: Policy Needs and Implications

The next phase of the project will focus on the lofty goal of garnering public support for programs and policies that support older adults. While the public preference may be to sweep realities and concerns about aging under the rug, the experts emphasized several specific areas that need to be re-engineered to help eradicate ageism in America.

They urged:

  • Strengthening opportunities for seniors to make civic and social contributions
  • Rethinking work and retirement to allow people to work longer and more flexibly
  • Making public spending more efficient
  • Addressing institutional ageism
  • Ensuring retirement income security, building on the Social Security system as a framework
  • Building a prepared healthcare workforce and address growing needs for long-term care
  • Providing better social and institutional supports for caregivers, and
  • Investing in research on the aging process and on societal implications of an aging population.

Bringing about any one of these changes will likely take a village. And time. And money. But it would signal a start to stamping out ageism in America.

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