Senior Center Director
Arlington County Department of Parks & Recreation
“Words once they are printed, have a life of their own” – Carol Burnett
The conversations about aging are changing. AARP has a campaign called Disrupt Aging which champions personal choice and owning yourself no matter what decade you were born in. Dr. Ayn Welleford’s #DisruptAgeism hones in on the way negative ways society describes aging, whether in conversation, writing or advertising. It seemed time to bring the conversation to the senior center where I work. Engaging with participants about how older Americans can be agents of change regarding the negative perceptions that surround getting older would be a great start.
I enlisted a presenter. I wrote the description for the discussion and submitted it for publication. We were going to talk, learn from each other and affirm our changing demographics. People were living longer and that was a good thing. I was looking forward to being part of a meaningful discussion. Here is a description of the program:
Talking to Your Family About Ageism
Ageism is one of the last socially acceptable forms of discrimination. One look at the cosmetic aisle in any drugstore will confirm that. How your family perceives you as you progress through life will determine how and where you live as well as other choices. Take part in this discussion led by (name left out) to help you and help your loved ones.
The write-up produced a reaction I did not expect. An irate call came shortly after the program guide starting arriving in the mail. A citizen read my write-up and came to the conclusion that I was supportive of ageism. This person called the place where the presenter worked, the Senior Center and gave everyone (including my supervisor) who happened to be on the other end of the phone the “what for”. The situation was made worse because I was out of town and never got a chance to speak to this individual. I did get a blow by blow account (from more than one person) of the interaction. It was torturous. This is crazy, I thought. I carefully crafted this write-up. But, in the end, my message backfired. What happened?
Well, there were many things I didn’t include in the write up. The Frameworks Institute, a non-profit that looks at how communication relates to how social policies are discussed, developed a tool-kit to talk about aging. They compare public thinking to a swamp because something can come out of nowhere and attack you unless you learn to anticipate how your message may be perceived. Yup.
They noted that there are huge differences between what professionals think and what the public thinks. Without the proper frame, phrases or words can trigger negative responses. So my first sentence should have defined ageism and offered an immediate solution. There were so many things I could have done differently.
This most recent experience has made me think about how those of us who work with the 55 plus population trek through the swamp of public thinking every day. Our purpose in the recreation field is to create different programs that will engage and encourage regular participation in a demographic that is at risk for social isolation. The challenge is that we interact with an incredibly diverse population in terms of age difference, education, experiences and cultures. While I am sure we all agree that you can’t please everyone it’s important to make sure everyone at the very least feels included.
How do you navigate the swamp of public thinking?