The Culture of Aging Needs to Change for All of Us

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Penny Cook, President & CEO, Pioneer Network

From an early age as I used to visit family members who lived in nursing homes, I got the sense they were treated differently.  Sometimes it was because they weren’t dressed in their own clothes but rather hospital gowns.  Sometimes it was because they were sleeping in rooms with other people they didn’t know.  I was a kid; I didn’t quite understand it, but I knew it was different.  I remembered when I was hospitalized at the age of 5 with pneumonia.  I got to wear my own pajamas, sit with the nurses at the nurses’ station while I ate popsicles and to pass the time, I read books to other kids who were there.  I felt so special!  Nursing homes didn’t seem to make people feel that way.

Fast forward to now.  In my 50 years of life, I’ve now come to believe that my experience as a child receiving care was not like the experience of an Elder.  In fact, the experience of an Elder living life is vastly different than a younger person.  We live in a world that values youth, vitality, quickness and instant gratification.  A thoughtful, methodical, measured approach is not always viewed with enthusiasm.

I am developing a hypothesis that I want to share with all of you.  The reason our society has certain negative practices, policies and systems in place to support Elders is because we have a fear of aging.  We are afraid of the natural process of growing older.

Let me back-up a little.  Have you had the experience of buying a greeting card recently?  Occasionally, or maybe always, you don’t want one that has sappy rhymes.  You just want funny.  Take a quick test the next time you pick out a humorous card.  Count how many cards you have to open before you find one that doesn’t mock, ridicule or generally make fun of age or of getting older.  It’s hard!

Better yet, go to a party store and find the milestones birthday aisle.  You’ll see special multi-colored decorations for a 16th, 21st and 30th birthday.  You’ll also find the black decorations, to commemorate the years that some people won’t admit to, like “being 39” again.  There are black balloons that say something like “Over the Hill” and there’s the “Diaper Birthday Cake.” Yes, I have a picture of it and you should be appalled.

I’m a believer that humor is an essential component in our lives, but this isn’t humorous.  This is an expression of something else.  What happens when we experience fear? We can flee or fight, think anti-aging.  We can marginalize a person, group of people or a situation. In some cases, we may completely ignore someone or something with the hopes that they or it will go away.  Or we may make fun of it to keep it at bay, to not let it get too close.

We have all worked so hard to change the culture of care.  We have changed language and practices, we have written and read many books, developed and used toolkits and we know and have seen that all those steps on the journey have made a difference.  And yet, we continue to have two and sometimes three people who don’t know each other live in the same room.  We continue to have people share bathrooms.  We continue to build communities without easily accessible areas for people to independently spend time outside.  We continue to challenge people’s desires, preferences and decisions.

Our cause needs to broaden.  The work we need to do goes beyond nursing homes, assisted living communities and other types of living environments for Elders.  It involves us, our families, friends, colleagues and the vast number of people we have yet to meet.  It involves everyone.  Why? Because we are all experiencing the normal process of aging, every minute of every day, and the culture of aging needs to change for all of us.

Pioneer Network has been the leader in the culture change movement.  We have been the disseminator of information, best practices, tools and tips as well as the connector to the array of organizations that are directly helping change the culture of care.  It’s now time for all of us to tackle this broader mission that Pioneer Network was founded upon, to change the culture of aging.  Can we count on you to take this journey with us?

17 comments on “The Culture of Aging Needs to Change for All of Us

  1. Brian LeBlanc on

    Very well said, Penny.

    No one should be defined by their age or by their physical/mental abilities. We are ALL individualized and should not be grouped together because of how old/young we are.


  2. Sister Imelda Maurer on

    Penny, I loved reading about your childhood hospital experience and how it made you feel special! Your article has so many visionary yet foundational concepts about changing the culture of aging. Thank you! I’m in with you and the Pioneer Network in this great work of changing the culture of aging and aging services!

  3. Carmen Bowman on

    Thank you Penny for making us aware. I have a theory and a wonder, could it be that Institutionalization = Ageism? And an invitation to anyone reading this: we are hosting an all day intensive Aug. 15th at the Pioneer Network conference in Denver to dig into all angles of this. Come also learn the better practices of culture change and how many of them are now imbedded in the new CMS regulations!

  4. Paul P Falkowski on

    I just had the “greeting card” experience for my wife’s 65th birthday. Every card was just awful. So I went back home and made one that expressed my deep appreciation for her and how much our friendship has meant to me these past 46 years. As for shifting the way society views aging and older adults, I think our best hope is to continue to encourage older adults to continue to seek out opportunities for personal growth and to recognize and confront the sources of ageist messages. Some of the late night talk show hosts would be a good place to start, I won’t mention any names but I have emailed and tweeted a few messages to them about their ageist jokes. It happens in our churches as well where older adults are pushed off to the side and relegated to rubber chicken lunches and so on. Finally, I would add that we really need a national campaign to encourage younger people to volunteer in nursing homes. That’s how I got started and the experience became the foundation for my career in aging. Prior to that experience, the idea wasn’t even on the radar. Thanks for all you and the Pioneer Network are doing!

  5. Beverley Laubert on

    Great message, Penny. Perhaps Pioneer Network should start a line of cards that honor elders.

  6. Gene thompson on

    Yes, I would like to help others better understand aging. Most won’t give the issue any thought until it’s turn to move into an “institution”.

    • Joan Devine on

      A part of the fear of aging is the thought that for most of us, it will result in institutionalization – just not the facts for most, and for those who do need supportive care of some sort, when we fully acknowledge the value of Elders in our society, we will provide better options for living. That’s what the movement is all about.

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