Written by Bethany Stoutamire (Former SDSU Extension Aging in Place Coordinator AmeriCorps VISTA Member) under the direction and review of Leacey E. Brown.
Several of the articles in this series have focused primarily on individual level factors, such as diet and positive attitude, as a way to improve aging outcomes. However, to quote activist Stella Young, “No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp.” Thus, it is critical that we also focus on the society-wide changes that need to happen. In this article, we will look at potential steps we can take to create a society that promotes positive and purposeful aging for us all.
Create a More Age-Integrated Society.
Studies have found that many neighborhoods and counties are segregated by age in a similar pattern to how they are segregated by race. As researchers Peter Uhlenberg and Gunhild Hagestad note, “Age segregation mark sharp distinctions between self and other; between ‘us’ and ‘them.’” This lack of interaction also means that different generations don’t have the ability to learn from one another. It also means that we miss out on the benefits that come with intergenerational mingling. Older adults who come into regular contact with children, for instance, can experience increased physical strength and improved cognitive ability, while children who interact regularly with older adults can see improved social and interpersonal skills.
Change Our Aging Language.
It is important to realize the impact of words. For instance, elderspeak is the practice of speaking to older citizens in an infantilizing way, such as referring to an older woman as a “young lady” or a nursing home resident as “sweetie.” Older individuals who are infantilized perform worse on memory and other tasks. Additionally, some older people find it belittling. Perhaps most interesting, research suggests that such infantilizing speech could make some patients with dementia more resistive to care. Before calling someone “sweetie” it may be best to ask how they would prefer to be addressed.
It is also important to remember that aging is a lifelong process. There is no magic line where youth ends and aging begins. Therefore, we are all aging. For this reason, we should avoid talking about aging as if it is happening to someone else. Instead of saying “as people age, they may need additional services” we should frame this as “we may need more services as we age.” To learn more, please read, Strategies to Advocate for Aging Issues.
Utilize Universal Design.
Without significant changes of birth or death rates, we anticipate that age diversity will continue. Population aging is not expected to end when the baby boom generation is no longer with us. Thus, it will be more important than ever to come up with safe and healthy ways to promote aging in place, as most older adults say they want to stay in their home until the end of their life.
One way to promote aging in place is through universal design, a design principle that aims to make buildings and homes comfortable to all, regardless of ability. The five fundamental features needed in housing to support us at every stage of life are at least one no-step entrance, single-floor living (one bedroom and bathroom on the main floor), extra-wide hallways and doors, accessible electrical controls, and level-style handles on doors and faucets. Currently, only about 1% of homes have all five features. In order to build more homes that are universally designed, some states like Ohio offer tax incentives to builders or homeowners to build or add components of universal design to them. Other states like Georgia, Virginia, and Pennsylvania also offer tax credits for implementing accessible features.
Addressing the public policy and attitudes around aging is an imperative. By creating more universally designed housing and changing the dialogue around aging, we have the unique opportunity to not only make the world a better place for our children, but for our parents and ourselves as well.
Cultivating a Healthy Life Series:
- Cultivating a Healthy Life
- 5 Myths About Aging
- Why Aging Myths Matter
- We Are What We Think
- The Science of Aging
- 5 Ways to Age Gracefully
References & Additional Readings:
- The Benefits of Intergenerational Programs
- What ‘Age Segregation’ Does to America
- Housing America’s Older Adults
- In ‘Sweetie’ and ‘Dear,’ a Hurt for the Elderly
- Fried, L.P. et. al. 2004. A Social Model for Health Promotion for an Aging Population: Initial Evidence on the Experience Corps Model. Journal of Urban Health 81(1): 64-78
- Hagestad, G. and P. Uhlenberg. 2005. The Social Separation of Old and Young: A Root of Ageism. Journal of Social Issues 61(2): 343–360
- William, KN. et. al. 2010. Elderspeak Communication: Impact on Dementia Care. American Journal of Alzheimer's Disease & Other Dementias 24(1): 11-20
- Winkler, R. 2013. Research Note: Segregated by Age: Are we becoming more divided? Population Research and Policy Review 32(5): 717-727