Strategies to Advocate for Aging Issues Back »

In Change in Public Discourse on Aging Recommended we discussed a report released by the FrameWorks Institute.  We learned that much of the public discourse on aging is fragmented and incomplete. To reduce the gap between public discourse and scientific knowledge on aging, national aging organizations and funders set out to explore the narrative on aging issues and provide strategies to bridge the gap. The report from their efforts was released in February.

How we talk about age-related topics matters:

Words have power. They convey how we think. Words can immobilize or empower us. Understanding this is critical as we strive to talk differently about aging and older people.

Word Choice Matters

Step one is to eliminate language that sets older apart from the rest of the community. For example, words such as “they” or “them” divide older people from the community. Instead use words like “we” or “us”. Aging in a universal process so we should strive to include ourselves when discussing aging needs. Because, ultimately, the things we do to improve the experiences of the current cohort of older people will improve our aging experience.

What we call adults in later life was also examined. Results indicated that terms such as “elder” and “senior citizen” were associated with incompetency, while “older person” and “older adult” were seen as the most competent. The recommendation is to consistently use the term “older people” because the public thinks of people age 60 and older. In addition, older people was viewed as more positive and less likely to invoke unhelpful attitudes and beliefs about aging.

Aging Communication Traps

The demographer trap is common in media and advocacy organizations. Essentially this is the message that the size of the population of older people predicts looming social crisis. The problem with this frame is that it immobilizes public discourse, preventing the development of meaningful solutions.

Comparing ageism to racism or sexism diminishes the impact that aging attitudes and beliefs have on the experiences of older people. As a result, the complex systems that interact to promote age discrimination are overlooked.

The exemplar trap highlights older people doing extraordinary things. This trap reinforces the idea that healthy aging is the result of good individual choices. It ignores social and environmental factors that contribute to how we experience aging.

Appealing to public sympathy for adults who experience age discrimination or elder abuse is a trap that rarely elicits system level thinking or policy support. In addition, it risks reinforcing the idea that older people are “others” who need protecting. Solutions rarely emerge from this trap.

Reframing to Avoid Communication Traps

Framing strategies are effective when they reduce unproductive cultural models and open the doors to more productive thinking about specific topics and issues. Aging, ageism, and the role of policy in aging issues is poorly understood. As a result, communication framing strategies will vary by outcome desired.  

Two narratives were identified in the research as effective communication framing strategies: confronting injustice and embracing the dynamic. Please note that each narrative worked differently. For example, confronting justice failed to boost the perception that aging outcomes can be improved, whereas embracing the dynamic succeeded. For a full description of the research, please visit, Finding the Frame: An Empirical Approach to Reframing Aging and Ageism.

Confronting Injustice Narrative

This narrative focuses on treating older people as “others” with their social participation marginalized and their contributions minimized. This narrative urges us to name, define, and provide examples of how ageism impacts our experiences as older people. We are reminded that aging attitudes and beliefs are implicit, meaning not intentional. They are informed by exposure to news and media portrayals of aging that are skewed and inaccurate. Because of the nature of implicit bias, meaningful solutions must be available. As an example, removing questions from applications that indicate high school graduation year.

Embracing the Dynamic Narrative

This narrative taps into the ingenuity of Americans. We solve problems. Aging is framed as forward momentum driven by experience and wisdom. The problem is framed as we are losing access to this incredible pool of experience and wisdom because current employment practices, public transportation systems, and housing policies are antiquated. We end with concrete examples of inventive solutions (e.g. intergenerational community centers).

Next Steps

This article provided a summary of a two year study to explore public discourse on aging. Perhaps the most important take away is that aging is a universal experience. When advocating for aging issues, we must include ourselves in the discussions (e.g. what we need to age in place).

Please review the Gaining Momentum: A FrameWorks Communications Tookit.


Reference: FrameWorks Institute. (2017). Finding the Frame: An Empirical Approach to Reframing Aging and Ageism. [Research Report]. Washington, DC.

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