Don’t call us OLD: How to embrace the aging revolution

How is your organization embracing the Aging 2.0 revolution?










“When I was young, I was called a rugged individualist. When I was in my fifties, I was considered eccentric. Here I am doing and saying the same things I did then, and I’m labeled senile.” – George Burns

“We’re taking the world’s greatest success – longevity – and making it our worst consequence. When you refer to an aging class as ‘the other’, you are not going to treat them well.” Joseph Coughlin, PhD, founder and director of the AgeLab at MIT

 “We are the people our parents warned us about” – Jimmy Buffett

Last month, as this greying Boomer got her roots dyed, conversation with my stylist turned to our parents.

I shared how mom, 82, enjoys weekly lectures at her life plan community. Her regular forays to plays, concerts, art exhibitions. How, through coaching, she’s a pro with her iPhone and her Amazon Echo. I admired mom’s 97-year-old BFF, who volunteers on five committees and runs around campus with her walker.

My stylist’s reaction?  “Oh?”  Then, “How cuuuuuute!”

Mom’s reality flew in the face of everything my stylist was conditioned to think about life after we reach ‘a certain age.’ Unfortunately, her reaction is still way too common.

While global technology spending by or on behalf of people 50 and over will reach $2 trillion by 2020, many of our beliefs, perceptions and words about aging are still in the Dark Ages.

How are we preparing (or not) to live in an aging society? The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnick hits it on the head in this WNYC radio interview:  “No one thinks of himself or herself as OLD. If you have a device that is helpful to the elderly, there’s one thing we can be sure of: It’s that no elderly person will buy it.”

While our health systems are becoming more age-friendly, we don’t value unpaid family caregivers. We under-compensate professionals who provide care and companionship.  A crisis is looming, one that outdated attitudes won’t solve.

As Benchmark Senior Living CEO Tom Grape puts it: “Our society often sees older people not as people, but as disabilities. Studies have shown that social isolation and loneliness is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. The anecdote? Social engagement. The problem? People don’t know how to market products and services in a way that isn’t demeaning or reinforcing stereotypes and perceptions.”

Happily, we’re beginning to counter these negative beliefs and make our society a better place for those over 60, 70, 80 and 90. The Aging 2.0 movement spans 90+ cities and has hosted more than 550 events around the world. Its mission: Accelerate innovation to address the biggest challenges and opportunities in aging.

After hearing more than a dozen experts at the Aging 2.0-Revolutionize conference in Boston last month, I’ve distilled five ideas your company or organization can internalize (and manifest) about aging well in your culture, your operations, your communications. They apply not only to your senior customers but to every generation you touch.

Our life patterns don’t have to be linear…or traditional.

Alexandre Kalache, president of the international Longevity Centre-Brazil and co-president of the International Longevity Centres Global Alliance, says that our lives must be run like a marathon, not a sprint:

“100 years ago, people learned what they needed by age 15 and did hard labor in factories. Social Security was created based on these old patterns of work and longevity. Now our life journeys are fragmented and changing, and our retirement lifespans are longer. Solutions to balance child rearing, childcare, work and care for older loved ones must involve employers…and men.

Your life is just in the middle at 45. You should have opportunities to pause, refresh and reflect. Then at the end of your life you should also have choices – where to live, how to interact with others, how and where to receive care.”

Employers that claim to be age-friendly, then push workers over 60 out the door, take note. Want to tap those who have the desire and talent to contribute? Attract more of them by becoming a Certified Age Friendly Employer.

We are (still) in charge of our destinies. 

Helping people become resilient – to effectively manage present and future challenges – was a recurring theme at the Aging 2.0 Revolutionize conference.

This is especially true in healthcare. A disturbing diagnosis doesn’t mean giving up control. Fifteen years ago, mom was diagnosed with wet advanced macular degeneration. Yet her vision is still mostly intact. Why? She educated herself on the disease and its evolving treatments. She never misses her retinal checks and anti-VEGF injections every 6-8 weeks. She drives herself to the grocery store in daylight and takes her community’s van to events at night. After dad died, she rejected a life alone in her home, moving to a community with the social interaction that’s keeping her active, healthy and happy.

You Are In Charge is also true in life planning. Sh– will happen to us all at some point. How we prepare for it can help us, and our families, cope when “It” hits the fan. Haven’t had The Conversation yet? It’s never too early.

The best health insurance? A strong network of friends, family and community. Continuous learning.

Within 10 years, people 65 years and older will outnumber children under 10 in the U.S. Doesn’t it make sense to bring young and old together in learning environments that benefit both?

Boston’s Laselle Village has done just that. It’s the first senior living community to require each resident to commit to a goal-oriented program of education in a college setting at its sister organization, Lasell University. Residents must meet a 400 hours-per-year study requirement, a standard that many residents exceed. Classes range from sociology and social movements, to the ethics of genetic testing to forensics. A recent course united college students and seniors to study and discuss the effects of gun violence. Holding it all together, Lasell Village and Lasell University incorporate smart design for common spaces, libraries and classes. They integrate the work of young interns. And they purchase services from vendors in Boston’s tech and service sectors.

What is your company or organization doing to encourage cross-generational interaction and continuous learning?

Lose the sad, disempowered words and images.

“75% of our nation’s housing wealth is owned by people over 50. These owners are more likely to rent AirBnB properties on vacation. Tesla’s best market? Drivers over 55. Many companies will become age-tech focused; they just don’t know it yet. Meanwhile, who has become our nation’s chief aging officer? [Amazon founder] Jeff Bezos himself.”Dominic Endicott, founding partner, 4Gen Ventures

CEOs whose companies aim their sights on older consumers avoid words like doddering and senile to describe them. AARP and Getty Images recently joined forces to create the Disrupt Aging® Collection, photos that challenge our beliefs about how people in their 50s, 60s, 70s and beyond work and live.

If your public relations agency keeps pulling the same outdated images and terms to describe this vibrant and evolving market, perhaps it’s time to look for new options?

Leave no one behind.

Revolutions backfire if things don’t get better for the majority. What can we all do to help the 25 million Americans over 65 who are economically insecure live better?

Companies that support their communities’ seniors also boost their brand. By providing training, employment and financial planning support, they strengthen local economies. By offering employees volunteer opportunities at senior-focused organizations, they are seen as an employer of choice. Not sure where to begin? Search the National Council on Aging’s national map of partners and programs.

A top priority: companies that support employees who do double-duty as unpaid family caregivers earn loyalty that can boost retention and reduce expensive turnover.

How will you fuel the Aging 2.0 revolution?

We’ve come a long way towards recognizing our country’s new demographic reality. But we’ve got a long way to go before our attitudes and actions match Japan’s. How will you bring over-60, over-70 and over-80-year-old perspectives to your user experience, client acquisition and community engagement efforts?

Drawing upon her 25+ years’ PR and marketing communications experience in health care, senior living and home care, education, manufacturing and not-for-profit sectors, PRConsultants Group member Jenny Smith founded Acuity Public Relations LLC in 2012. PR strategy, content development and marketing, media relations and event promotion are what she loves best. When she’s not serving clients, Jenny can be found digging in her garden, in a spinning class, cranking laps in the pool, devouring a book or planning travel.