Attitude Adjustment: Aging

Of all the people who have lived to age 60 – in the entire history of humankind – half of them are alive today.

Yet the greatest demographic shift in the history of planet Earth remains largely unnoticed by politicians and policymakers.

“Why do we have such a hard time convincing people that aging and disability are important?” asks John Feather, head of the Arlington, VA- based Grantsmakers in Aging.

At a recent meeting to spur creation of an age-friendly San Francisco, Feather spoke plainly about the barriers to an age-friendly society.

While affordable housing and better transportation top the list of needs for older adults, the true battle is being fought elsewhere.

It’s about changing the attitudes about aging.

He cited the efforts of the FrameWorks Institute to shift perceptions – the way we “frame” our beliefs – about critical social issues such as aging. The institute’s report Gauging Aging highlights the critical need to change our views on aging if we’re going to create an age-friendly society.

In fact, Feather says, Americans hold two contradictory views about aging.

First, that older adults are fast creating positive and vibrant futures full of new and exciting adventures free from the constraints of society. Second, that the aging process is an endless series of losses, decay and despair.

And Feather insists those in the aging world are often to blame for this second, more depressing view.

Organizations like Meals on Wheels or the Alzheimer’s Association often depend on the portrayal of isolated, helpless adults in their efforts to raise money. This framework for aging in a relentlessly negative context bleeds over into the general population.

Feather also outlined other barriers to successful aging.

Two groups that should be working together to overcome stereotypes are often at odds: older adults and the disabled. And while the 10th anniversary of San Francisco’s Long Term Care Coordinating Council focused on creating an “Aging & Disability Friendly City,” Feather says the two groups who should be fighting together are often fighting one another.

“There’s a lack of connection (nationwide) between the two groups, and it’s odd,” says Feather. “In some places it’s really bitter.”

While joking about being a “Debbie downer,” Feather added that the future holds several other challenges for older adults, many of them financial. On average, Baby Boomers will bring just $50,000 into retirement.

“We will have the largest group of impoverished American we’ve ever seen.”

In California, Feather says the southern half of the state benefits from heavier philanthropic support for aging programs, while northern California – especially in rural areas – suffers from a severe financial shortfall.

On the bright side, Feather discussed pioneers like Michael Bloomberg of New York City who was the first big city mayor to fully embrace aging as part of the city’s future, creating a 50-year aging plan before his departure in 2013.

Feather’s own Grantsmakers in Aging program Community AGEnda works closely with five communities around the country to help them become more age-friendly. Their needs are all completely different and focus on the changes they can make rather than larger, unrealistic initiatives.

“The folks who really do this well are agile,” he says. “What is the piece here that our community can pick to move forward?”

Feather summarized his discussion on aging by pointing out that Baby Boomers are no longer the largest American generation. That distinction now belongs to Millenials born after 1985 and who will – unbelievably – turn 65 just as the last of the Baby Boomers finish.

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