The process of aging is a lifelong journey, but stereotypes about “getting old” can have negative impacts on people’s happiness and health. Some experts say recognizing ageism is the first step, and others are creating intergenerational spaces to explore the positive aspects of aging. In the first of a two-part series, Virginia Currents Producer Catherine Komp has more.
Walk through the birthday card aisle, flip through a magazine, or turn on the TV - and Tracey Gendron says you’ll see ageism.
Tracey Gendron: I think it is embedded in every part of the ecological system.
Gendron is a professor of gerontology at Virginia Commonwealth University. She points to a glaring example: the anti-aging industry, which has convinced millions that aging is a crisis to fight with creams and serums. Ageism is also present in institutions and social spaces, and says Gendron, it’s contagious.
Gendron: So for example if you're having a bad day and you go “I feel so old.” First of all, you don't mean old, you mean either tired or stressed, exhausted, you don't feel well. One of those things because what does old really feel like? But now that you've said it in a social space that's where it becomes contagious. Right. So then my head goes oh, “old is bad.” Or “Happy 29th Birthday Again,” to someone who’s turning 30, these are the ways we reinforce it in the social space.
Ageist messaging fills pop culture, with older people regularly portrayed as grumpy, feeble or unintelligent. News stories often frame seniors as a vulnerable monolith, prone to being scammed. Gendron says when these messages are internalized, there can be serious consequences.
Gendron: There's a whole body of research that's been done that shows that people that have more positive views of their own aging live longer, seven and a half years longer. They live healthier, they are more active, they are less likely to be socially isolated so they're more socially engaged. So there is a real world impact here. How we feel about ourselves as an aging person can affect the rest of our lives.
This summer, a new initiative in Richmond had a different take on aging. Over a two-week period, staff from the finance company Genworth teamed up with Peter Paul Development Center’s Summer Promise Program. They developed art, reading and writing projects that examined aging, from zero on up. Then, local seniors came by the classrooms at Fairfield Elementary.
Mrs. Ramsey: I want to introduce you to Miss Gladys…
As students work on portraits of their “older selves” Miss Gladys answers questions.
Miss Gladys: You want to know when I was born? The same year Pearl Harbor was bombed.
Ms. Gladys said when she was their age, her mother wouldn’t allow her dance. But she does now. And she has a nickname - happy feet.
Miss Gladys: A lot of people identify me by that...people will say, you were somewhere and you were dancing! … I think anything you do when you’re young, if you continue it, you’ll always be able to do it, but once you get away from it, it might be hard to get back into it.
In other classrooms, students ask their guests how many children they have and what’s their favorite color, song and fruit.
Guest: Peach, my birthmark is a peach also.
Students: Oh! We’re reading a book about James and the Giant Peach!
Genworth’s Tena Krouse says it’s important to create ways to connect youth, seniors and everyone in-between.
Krouse: I really hope the kids not only see the seniors to aspire to do something but see that aging is not scary and I also hope the seniors see the kids as not just kids but more like little people who are interested and who are both, whether it’s a young person or an older person, deserving of each other’s time and each other’s engagement.
Kayla Runion: Having the seniors in here today was something I was so excited about.
Kayla Runion is an educator with Peter Paul Development Center and a site coordinator for the Summer Promise Program. She points out a fact that many forget: aging is happening right now to everyone.
Runion: And we don’t think about it that. It’s fascinating to have our students think about, I am changing constantly. Every day is a step toward who I will be, but also a step away from who I was yesterday. It’s kind of a strange, fascinating topic.
So what do Runion’s second graders think of aging? Do they think getting older is a good thing?
Students: Uh–huh. If you get older you’ll be a grown up that has kids and be able to have fun, do whatever you what. And then when you get older-older, you’ll be able to go places by yourself and go to your jobs.
When I get older and older, I want to work at Kings Dominion and go to Chuck E. Cheese.
The good things about getting older then you can do whatever you want, go outside… and when you get older you’ll be able to say a lot of words.
Tena Krouse says she hopes Genworth can take this pilot program to other schools, linking more students, seniors and community groups. VCU’s Tracey Gendron also has ideas for people who want to re-write the narrative that aging is a story of decline. She suggests examining how you use the words young and old, which she says are actually neutral terms but are often used with judgement.
Gendron: So as I said when when we say I feel old what is it that we're actually saying? On the other hand when you tell somebody that they have a “young spirit” for example, what do you mean when you say the word young, do you really mean young? You don't. You actually mean engaged, vibrant, energetic. You know there's a million different adjectives that I could use to describe it, but it's not young. “Young” is actually just easy to say because it's easily understood.
Gendron says in gerontology aging is seen as a biological, psychological, social and spiritual process. There will be changes to the body, maintenance and adaptation. But she says there’s also growth.
Gendron: It's multi-directional and it's multifaceted. So meaning that even when it comes to intelligence there are aspects of maybe speed processing that might decline over time but there's also aspects of learned knowledge that increase over time. So it's complex and there's really beauty in that complexity.
If you put the words “aging population” in an online search, you’ll see a lot of headlines that paint the future as gloomy: “Aging Population Presents Challenges…” “Our Aging Workforce Needs Foreigners” and “With an aging population, the U.S. and Latin America are ‘in a race against time.” It is true that by 2050, the US population aged 65 and over is expected to rise to about 84 million - nearly doubling the figure from 2012. But Gendron says communities could benefit from the growth in the older population.
Gendron: Given that number there is tremendous opportunity in front of us to make the world a better place by engaging in that expertise of older adults and having them drive some community change and having them drive what their process of aging looks like and purpose and belonging. And so instead of saying “[Are we] prepared?” let's think of it in terms of “Wow, what can we accomplish?”
Next week, we continue our look at aging and engagement, by visiting a Friendship Cafe in Ashland and hearing from residents about the important role it plays in their lives. For Virginia Currents, I’m Catherine Komp, WCVE News.