How Do We Change The Conversation About Aging?

As the coordinator for Age-Friendly Coastal Communities, Healthy Peninsula has been working diligently to create a community where aging is seen, not as a calamity of dependence and frailty, but rather as a natural, continuous process, that includes opportunities for engagement and personal fulfillment at every stage.  While each individual has the right to make autonomous decisions about his or her own best interest, as a community we need, and, in fact, can, decide what we want our community to look like as we become older and our lives evolve.

Age-Friendly Coastal Communities is a collaboration among the 9 towns of the Blue Hill Peninsula and Deer Isle, along with many of the health care, social service, and community-based organizations that serve this area.  The goal of the collaboration is to support a “livable” community, which truly values its members of all ages, enhances personal independence, allows people to remain in their homes and communities as they age, and fosters engagement in the community’s civic, economic, and social life.  This collaboration is one of over 60 age-friendly communities in Maine, a movement that now includes Maine’s recent designation as an Age-Friendly State.

One of the barriers we face in our age-friendly work is the challenge of how to change attitudes about aging.  American society shares a strongly fatalistic attitude about aging and the possibility of thriving in older age.  We’ve all heard about the “silver tsunami” and the doomsday drumbeat of the “crisis” of our aging state.  What we don’t always see is how deeply ageist these perspectives are.  Our society’s stereotypes of aging range from the seemingly frivolous “funny” birthday cards to the more serious issues of employment discrimination (like the recent decision in the Carey case by the Maine Human Rights Commission).  These stereotypes also impact other policies and programs, such as tax policies, health care, transportation policies, labor policies, housing, and community development, all of which create the infrastructure in which we all will live, age, and – eventually – die.

Studies show that older people are consistently marginalized in American society.  This institutional ageism prevents older adults’ full social, political, and economic engagement.  “Older Americans represent an enormous source of civic and economic contribution, but ageist assumptions about their abilities impede the realization of these contributions.” (Sweetland, et. al., “Finding the Frame”, FrameWorks Institute 2017).  Implicit biases against aging in general and older people in particular, influence policy making at every level, from municipal governance to the federal government.

While American society – and Mainers in particular – are often lauded for our long tradition of innovation and “Yankee ingenuity”, we often neglect to apply that ingenuity when it comes to getting older.  For example, the flip side of the “silver tsunami” is that Americans (and Mainers) are living longer, healthier lives than ever before in our history.  This fact brings so many more opportunities than dilemmas.  How can we harness the wisdom, life experience, and creativity that we accumulate as we age, while also creating a society that provides us with the support and care we need when the time comes?

These are questions we all must face.  To do it collectively, with an eye to creating a community where we all would like to grow older, is our challenge.  If you’d like to get involved, contact us at [email protected]

Janet Lewis, Executive Director, Healthy Peninsula