New Toolkit Can Help Reframe Ageist Messaging

Editor’s note: ASA President and CEO Bob Stein represents ASA in the Reframing Aging work advanced by the Leaders of Aging Organizations (LAO), also serving as an advisor to the Re­framing Elder Abuse parallel research project conducted by the Administration for Community Living (and begun at the suggestion of then Assistant Secretary for Aging Kathy Greenlee) and completed by the National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA) at the University of Southern California. Says Stein, “The synergy between the Reframing Aging and Reframing Elder Abuse projects was uncanny; these two studies and their respective toolkits are valuable resources for professionals working in aging. We are pleased that ASA could play a role in moving the field forward toward a shared vision of reducing both ageism and elder mistreatment in our society.”

Experts in the field of aging cite myriad models demonstrating benefits of the demographic shift to an older America—older adults flocking to volunteer opportunities like the Peace Corps, putting their expertise to use in classrooms, continuing crucial research, advocating and fomenting policy change.

But what if the field cannot get this message across to the world at large—that older people are a positive force, that the demographic bubble does not have to pit older adults against younger, that ageist assumptions are incredibly damaging?

What if, as Nathaniel Kendall-Taylor, CEO of FrameWorks Institute says, “the field is inadvertently reinforcing understandings that impede its ability to move forward?”

This was one of many findings from the Institute’s recent studies, conducted at the behest of eight Leading Aging Organizations (LAO): AARP, the American Federation for Aging Research, the American Geriatrics Society, the American Society on Aging (ASA), Grantmakers in Aging, the Gerontological Society of America, the National Council on Aging and the National Hispanic Council on Aging.

FrameWorks now has created a way to help push past the impediments, with its new communications toolkit. The toolkit provides strategies for organizations and individuals to tell better stories about aging, thus achieving better outcomes.

Analysis and Research Behind the Toolkit

FrameWorks Institute, a communications research think tank, studies issues like ageism and early childhood development and how the public understands such issues, through methods from psychological anthropology and other disciplines that shift implicit patterns of thinking and prejudices. FrameWorks answers the question, “How is it that people subconsciously use culture in highly predictable ways to make sense of social issues?” Once that question is answered, FrameWorks helps organizations be more strategic and intentional when crafting messages.

“By studying the effects of different ways of presenting information, you can create messages that have dramatic effects on how people think, feel and act on social issues,” says Kendall-Taylor.

The first hurdle for FrameWorks and the LAO was to figure out and agree upon what, exactly, experts in the field of aging wanted to communicate to the public. Next on the agenda was to analyze existing discourse on aging—what is the media insinuating, what do other organizations say, how do they communicate about it? The results of that analysis showed Americans’ fatalistic outlook about aging—a view that reinforced negative stereotypes and was mostly crisis-oriented regarding the demographic shift and limited resources.

FrameWorks also researched how people think about aging, and their studies showed U.S. society’s deeply entrenched ageism, to the point where even older adults demonstrated implicit prejudice against other older adults.

Finally, the culmination of the work was to find ways of telling better stories, and using values and metaphors “to flip the switch on how people think about the process of aging,” says Kendall-Taylor. The toolkit, through step-by-step processes and clear language, gives organizations recommendations and guidelines for telling a better story, via blogs, social media or longer articles.

“We tend to think we’re communicating in awesome ways,” says Kendall-Taylor, so it came as a bit of a surprise to LAO members that they were falling into the same communications traps as the mainstream media.

Culture Change a Slow but Doable Process

On the surface, “reframing” can sound like jargon and seem superfluous to hands-on work with older adults. Kendall-Taylor admits that changing cultural perceptions is a slow process—not to be accomplished by a single public awareness campaign.

He points to a particular success now apparent in American society. For nearly two decades, the FrameWorks Institute has worked with the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child and the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University on reframing how Americans think about early childhood. Americans tended to assume that facing stress and adversity makes children stronger. The reality is that some trauma and stressors can be detrimental to a child’s development, and the FrameWorks-National Scientific Council collaboration gave rise to the idea of toxic stress. As researchers and writers began to use that phrase to describe what can happen in childhood and its lingering effects on later life, Americans began to see that the adage “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is not useful, and that there are productive ways to address stressors experienced in early childhood.

Reframing aging poses a similar challenge in that progress will be slow, and there will be no “magic bullet” to effect culture change. But by consistently improving their messages, organizations can chip away at ageism. The toolkit employs values such as innovation and justice to shift people from the fatalistic mode of how they think about aging. Reflecting on the ability of American culture to be innovative when faced with problems gets people in a different “head space,” as Kendall-Taylor calls it, to solve problems.

The American value of upholding justice turns on the American ideal of treating people equally. “It’s effective,” says Kendall-Taylor, “[as] it solves another pernicious problem on aging, which is when people immediately use ‘us versus them’ thinking, especially around [older people] ‘taking our resources.’.” The toolkit pairs such positive values with believable solutions, such as: “To live up to our ideals, we need to reshape society so that older people are fully included in our communities.”

Kendall-Taylor and his FrameWorks colleagues were gratified to find that, after being exposed to certain strategies in the toolkit, “people [were] less implicitly ageist.” Just reading about the toolkit’s Building Momentum metaphor (e.g., “Aging involves social, emotional and cognitive growth: As we get older, we gather momentum through the build-up of experiences and insights. …”) reduced people’s implicit bias by about a third, he says. “Messages and frames in our communications can have powerful effects.”

Editor’s Note: This article appears in the July/August, 2017, issue of Aging Today, ASA’s bi-monthly newspaper covering issues in aging research, practice and policy nationwide. ASA members receive Aging Today as a member benefit; non-members may purchase subscriptions at our online store.