Everyone desires to age well, rather than not, which makes healthy and purposeful longevity an unequivocally positive goal. One that is universally supported, right?
Sure, idealistically. But realistically, our social and political landscapes are cluttered with “causes,” all vying for public attention and government resources. For an issue as comparatively unattractive as “aging,” the need to shape public opinion and influence policymakers is especially challenging. And it will intensify as the older adult population grows in numbers and need.
AGELESS AND ENDLESS POSSIBILITIES
For two decades, half of my career in public relations, I have attempted to help government agencies and nonprofit organizations navigate to and through this historic Age of Longevity. The experience – which includes publishing elder safety journals; directing a statewide public awareness campaign; providing public relations counsel to hundreds of nonprofit aging services providers; and serving two terms as a Governor’s appointee to the California Commission on Aging – has yielded countless lessons.
Here is a recap of my 20 years’ top 10 rewards and bottom 10 frustrations; a reflection on opportunities seized, missed or postponed.
(Note: The following musings (or shameless humblebrags) were prompted by Frustration #10; please at least skip to the end for the punchline.)
TEN “AGING” REWARDS
- 1998: Mickey Rooney starred as California’s self-proclaimed “Aging Czar,” declaring “Everyone is aging. Some of us just have more experience” in a statewide campaign to promote healthy aging.
- 2007: The “Aging is an Active Verb” public awareness campaign generated more the $2 million in donated airtime and earned a 2007 Emmy nomination.
- 2008: Displayed at the California State Capitol, the international art exhibition “Inside Alzheimer’s: Portraits of the Mind” featured the provocative series of self-portraits by William Utermohlen, who was living with Alzheimer’s.
- 2009: Media Takes: On Aging, co-published by the Pulitzer-winning author Robert M. Butler, M.D. and his International Longevity Center, and Aging Services of California (now LeadingAge California) is a guidebook for writers to accurately represent aging and older adults.
- 2010: The book Longevity Rules showcased empowering and often provocative essays by 34 of the nation’s leading authorities on “How to Age Well Into the Future.”
- 2010: Proof that dreams are ageless, dozens of senior living residents experience their “Thrill of a Lifetime” each year courtesy of this altruistic initiative. Thrills produced ranged from motorcycle rides and whitewater rafting trips, to receiving a first-ever bouquet of flowers, to becoming an official Girl Scout at 100, to most notably reuniting two Japanese brothers who were separated for 60 years after losing touch during WWII.
- 2011: The acclaimed short film “Life is a Ball,” created by Pilotfish Productions, highlighted the parallel lives of an older adult and a tennis ball as both discover purpose with age. “It’s the enthusiast’s manifesto for locating worth and value in age,” wrote ChangingAging founder Bill Thomas, M.D.
- 2011: Dozens of aging Vietnam, Korean and WWII veterans in West Sacramento finally got a long-overdue Veterans Day Parade.
- 2012: California State University, Sacramento’s gerontology program sponsored an innovative Student Living & Learning Experience, placing a master’s program student-in-residence within a local older adult community.
- 2017: The California Commission on Aging joins the vanguard of a movement to reframe our extended life expectancy and rapidly aging population as a longevity dividend — with individual, social and economic benefits.
TEN “AGING” FRUSTRATIONS
- Kidding aside, how do “age-segregated” communities and centers benefit society?
- Some nonprofit aging services CEOs rake in nearly $1 million annually in salary and benefits, yet …
- Average compensation for frontline care workers is barely minimum wage.
- The ranks of journalists dedicated to covering the “age beat” continue to decline.
- Occasionally, legislative action may fix imminent problems. But long-range solutions seem to elude politicians more focused on “immediate gratification.”
- Advocacy groups tend to characterize everyone whose aging frail and vulnerable (i.e. a special interest group), which stereotypes older adults as them rather than us.
- Senior living providers miss an opportunity – and priceless goodwill – by not donating unoccupied rooms as transitional housing for returning military vets and families.
- Hollywood is producing more films lately with realistic depictions of older adults, but research shows ageist misrepresentations persist.
- Use of terms like “silver tsunami” erroneously imply that our increasingly older population will burden rather than benefit society.
- Lastly, this anecdote shows how much more work there is to do. A top executive of an aging services organization thought it would be “funny and not inappropriate” for all staff to wear black and use canes to mock an employee’s 60th birthday.
Of course, aging is about more than just numbers and rewards and frustrations. How effectively we deal with the inherent challenges and opportunities is a matter of life and death.