An inside look at the Leading Age Ageism Workshop: Taking Steps Toward a New Vision.

By Jack Cumming

Not long ago I wrote an article titled “Residents are the Industry Disruptors”, which highlighted LeadingAge national’s campaign to identify and fight “ageism”. LeadingAge perceives “ageism” as “. . . the extent to which [aging] is perceived as a loss of ability and hope rather than a third stage of growth filled with opportunity.” In the earlier article, I commented on the seemingly “ageist” absence of elderly participants from the panel for Workshop 40-P, “Ageism Workshop: Taking Steps Toward a New Vision.”   

Ageism Workshop: Taking Steps Toward a New Vision

Today (March 19th), I was able to attend the first hour of that workshop, and I met the panelists in person. They are impressive women, and I have no doubt that they speak for their generation. The first speaker, Mackenzie Price of the Frameworks Institute, was the only one for whose presentation I was able to stay. She is an accomplished academic, and she used a social-scientific linguistic framing to study how societal dialogue evolves around cultural concepts, including our view of aging.

Now when I wrote “our view,” I’m referring to how the discussion was framed. I think “our” meant people of working age, still rising in their careers, since that appeared to describe most of those present. Bob Nicholson, a CCRC resident at Aljoya in Seattle and, formerly, a resident at the Mirabella CCRC also in Seattle, and I were the only discernibly older people in the room, though I also ran into a provider friend who I would guess to be in his sixties. Bob and I are in our 80s, so we’re definitively old by most standards.

The Panel

Bob and I were received with great warmth by LeadingAge CEO Katie Smith Sloan and by all three of the panelists. We were welcomed to sit at the panelists’ table, and we did. When it was time for one of those “generative” exercises which are so popular nowadays, we were listened to politely. In all, I think it was a learning experience for the provider staff people present, for the panelists, and for Bob and me. We can all benefit from talking with each other.

The Takeaways

One takeaway for me was that we need to be clear whether “ageism” is an inappropriately discriminatory manifestation like “racism” or “sexism” or whether it is its own phenomenon and needs to be treated simply as a time of life. Most who read this forum remember their teenage years, and most also remember the transitions during their twenties. Each decade of life brings certain common elements and the transitions of one’s eighties and nineties (and beyond) are not much different.  

Is it reverse “ageism” for those of us who are older to refer to twenty-somethings as still finding their way, or as footloose and fancy-free? Or do those references signify something that we observe to help place ourselves firmly within the life spectrum. In other words, do we learn to “act our age” by being aware of the gradations of experience and aspiration that come with the different stages of the human life cycle, or are we doing something insidious to notice that others are younger than we?

Age Brings With It Challenges

An incident this very morning, the morning of the workshop, drove that home for me. I was at the national convening of CCRC residents in Virginia. It was that gathering which brought me to the DC area where the LeadingAge meeting was to be. A friend of mine for many years attends our meetings with a woman in his care. My friend is now in his late 90s (he was a pilot in World War II; shot down over Bavaria; and spent the war in a Stalag Luft camp). Some years ago, when the husband of the woman was dying, he asked my friend to care for his wife . . . soon to be his widow . . . and my friend has faithfully carried out that caregiving mission for many years.

The two of them came to our national meeting. My friend, despite his years, pushed his companion in a wheelchair. This morning I went down to breakfast. My friend was sitting at a table quietly eating. Unknown hotel guests, who it turned out live in Northern Ireland, were at the next table. I asked my friend how he had slept. The answer was astounding but characteristic of one of aging’s challenges. From where I was standing, I was struck not only by my friend’s account but also by the Irish guests’ visible reaction.

“My companion fell last night,” my friend began, “and I had to call maintenance to lift her up.” You can imagine the picture that brought of the night maintenance man trying to lift a helpless woman in her 90s up. But my friend continued, “When she fell, she hit her head on the nightstand so there was blood gushing all over her clothes and the room.” I asked if she had had to go to the hospital. “Oh, no, “was the reply,” she’s fine.” I didn’t know what to say, so I wished them well, and we left it at that.

Recognize the Realities of Aging

Later, when our meeting convened for a second day, I reported that I thought that my friend might not be able to come because of his personal situation. I was wrong. Not even five minutes after our meeting had begun, here came my friend pushing his companion in her wheelchair.  She looked the part of one of the battered women whom Gloria Allred might represent. She was huddled in a floor-length fur coat. I went over and asked her how she was. Her response? “That’s not mink; it’s some kind of petroleum product.” She and my friend are politically correct, and she wanted me to know that she would never wear an animal’s fur.

Now the point of this story, aside from the immediacy by which it preceded the workshop panel, is that it makes the case that old age brings many challenges. It’s not ageism to recognize the realities of aging. People become infirm. They may not fully embrace the newest technologies. They may be hard set in their political and other biases. They may have signs of cognitive loss. These are realities of aging, and it’s not ageism to recognize those realities and to take them into consideration. We can still accept all people of all ages and of all origins for their common humanity and their perseverance.

Avoiding Stereotypes

Ageism comes in when people take advantage of the frailty and, yes, the gullibility of the elderly. As an industry that exists to serve the needs of older people, the senior housing and services industry has to take special pains to avoid stereotyping residents. When, regardless of their abilities or achievements, residents are deemed disqualified as board members, then that is clearly discriminatory. It qualifies as ageism. Many residents serve on boards of other organizations but are deemed unfit for board service by the very entities that house them. When providers believe that they know best, perhaps because of a certification or degree that they hold, and so don’t feel that they have to confer with residents before making decisions affecting them, that is ageism.

We have work to do to bring providers and residents into harmony to work together to help cushion the challenges of aging. Today there are provider organizations and resident organizations. They are separate. They should be one and the same or, at least, working together in comity looking for mutual understanding. There’s no reason why providers gathering in their industry associations in search of best practices can’t benefit from the insights and creative ideas of residents. Of course, that’s not all residents. Most residents aren’t interested. But, then, not everybody is called to leadership.

The Mission

At the close of our two-day national conference of residents, the group’s leader summed up the essence of the weekend’s discussions. “Our mission,” he concluded, “is to change the industry culture to one that represents and respects residents.” Now many of my provider friends will say, “that’s what we already do,” or “there may be other providers who need to hear that message, but we are different.” Still, as long as a perception persists, even if it is not widely held among residents and even if it is ill-founded as many believe, the mere existence of the perception will hurt all who earn their livelihood in service to older Americans.

Those who were in attendance at today’s workshop deserve our commendation. Some may have been there for no more than continuing education credits, but all are deserving of high regard for devoting their lives and careers in a calling that serves others. Thank you for all you do.