Perceptions and Images of Aging and Community Resilience

By Laura M. Keyes, Cathy Boyer-Shesol and Mary Blumberg

What age do you define others as being “old”? 55? 85? 105?

It is hard to pinpoint an exact age of what it means to be “older” because health, ability and cognition may vary greatly among individuals.

For instance, “My in-laws are 77 but they are not old because they are fit and active…”

However, researchers provide evidence that older people face a decrease in mobility and cognitive abilities as age increases.1

What age do I consider myself to be old? 65? 85? 105?

Sometimes public administrators have difficulty associating a specific age as old or accepting an age that signifies being old especially when the perception of old relates to themselves.

Demographers tend to associate old into three categories of distinct age groups old (65-75), old-old (75-84), and very old (85 and older).2

What perceptions of aging do you think continue to proliferate in society further reinforcing barriers to creating age friendly communities?

The American culture has long held negative feelings toward the process of aging. Unrealistic perceptions such as frail, sick and unproductive are pervasive. Negative images may result in negative outcomes for older people. The proliferation of negative stereotypes of aging may establish a limited narrative of what it means to grow old in our communities. A narrow view of aging may result in policymakers, planners, and emergency responders lacking sufficient competency to appropriately respond to the needs of older people.

The recent fatalities of older people left alone in homes and nursing homes in Hurricane Harvey (Houston, 2017), and Hurricane Maria (Puerto Rico/South Florida, 2017) remind us of the continued need for cultural competency, knowledge about certain groups, and important education necessary to inform our plans and policies.

Lessons taken from Hurricanes Katrina and Maria suggest negative perceptions and images of older people resulted in poor response and outcomes because responders had a limited understanding of the needs of this age group.

The response to the needs of older people in Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Louisiana, reflected a concept of "doing good badly"3 coined by writer Nancy Gibbs' coverage of the 2004 Asian Tsunami.4,5 The phrase illustrates the well-intended actions of others to respond to the communities and victims of the disaster, but with completely inappropriate measures due to a lack of knowledge or competency of those in need.6 New Orleans' evacuation services in response to Katrina illustrated examples of a limited understanding of needs of older people as 47 percent of fatalities were individuals over the age of 75, many who lived alone or were invisible to the surrounding community.7

What skills-based opportunities exist to increase the competency of non-aging professionals to increase their overall knowledge of the needs of older people?

Our session at the Aging in America Conference—Perceptions and Images of Aging and Community Resilience—explores the perception of age held by ourselves as speakers as well as selected and city officials and how they envision older people in their communities and their needs. We are curious whether public officials may or may not recognize the needs of older people and match them with appropriate activities relative to what age is considered “old.” Research tells us that environmental factors account for over half of an individual’s aging process.8 We consider the barriers and opportunities of creating age-friendly communities and resilient communities if we have difficulty associating a specific age as old or accepting an age that signifies being old. We discuss with session participants the greater implications when responding to the needs of older people in emergencies or natural disasters.  

What role can policymakers play in breaking down negative connotations of aging?

A public administrator’s image of one’s self as not being old or accepting an age that is old may ultimately cause them to detach themselves from the older people they serve. This may impair their ability to design policies and programs that are matched with appropriate needs.  Workshop participants will review results from a survey asking elected officials and city staff in the Kansas City region their attitudes and/or perceptions of older people prior to engaging in a structured age-friendly community program and any changes in attitudes and/or perceptions after their engagement in the program

We provide innovations to leverage and build on potential strengths of the community by engaging older people and learning about their needs to reduce the community’s vulnerability.

Session participants will learn and analyze outcomes from new tools being developed by the Atlanta Regional Commission to change the discourse around aging to support age friendly communities. Utilizing the principles and research from the Frameworks Institute Gaining Momentum Toolkit, ARC has created multiple tools to engage individuals and policymakers on the policies, strategies and solutions needed to make the region age-friendly.

We encourage you to join us and to engage in discussion as we address the questions presented throughout this blog, and to share your perspectives and ideas about perceptions of aging relative and the design of policies and programs that truly serve the needs of older people. What can we do to ensure our ideas of aging are appropriately associated with realized needs?

Laura Keyes, Cathy Boyer-Shesol and Mary Blumberg will present a session on this topic at the Aging in America Conference as part of the Network on Environments, Services and Technologies full-day program, Creating Resilient Age-Friendly Communities: Enhancing Daily Lives of Individuals Across the Life Span, on Tuesday, April 16. Click here to learn more about the conference and to register.

Laura Keyes, Ph.D., an AICP certified planner, holds a position of Lecturer and Undergraduate Program Coordinator for the Nonprofit Leadership Studies and Urban Policy and Planning degrees for the Department of Public Administration at the University of North Texas. She is the current Chair of American Society on Aging’s Committee on Network on Environments, Services and Technology.  She has published a number of scholarly journal articles on aging policy and text book chapters on public administration.

Cathy Boyer-Shesol, MPA, is the Project Manager for KC Communities for All Ages (KCC), an initiative of the Mid-America Regional Council designed to help prepare the Kansas City region for the anticipated dramatic increase of older adults over the next several decades. She has over 35 years of professional and volunteer experience in the nonprofit sector, holding executive director positions and serving as an officer and/or board member for numerous nonprofit organizations in Illinois, Kansas and Missouri. She is a member of American Society on Aging’s Committee on Network on Environments, Services and Technology. She earned her Master’s in Public Administration from University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Mary Tonore Blumberg is the Manager for the Strategic Planning and Development Unit at the Atlanta Regional Commission, Aging and Independence Services Group. The Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) serves as the planning, development and intergovernmental coordination agency for the ten-county Atlanta Region. ARC is designated as the both the Atlanta region’s Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) and Area Agency on Aging (AAA). Mary’s work includes policy, planning and strategy development and community capacity building to prepare the Metro-Atlanta region for an aging population. She oversees ARC’s nationally recognized Lifelong Communities Initiative which promotes diverse housing, transportation and access to basic services. In addition to the Regional Strategic Plan on Aging development, she oversees a Quality Team that measures internal and external partners’ performance and compliance and develops recommendations for improvement. She previously worked at the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Elderly Affairs as the Director of Home and Community Based Services.



  1. Myers, A. M., Cyarto, E. V., & Blanchard, R. (2005). Challenges in quantifying mobility in frail older people. European Review of Aging and Physical Activity, 2, 3–21.
  2. Hartt, M. D., & Biglieri, S. (2018). Prepared for the Silver Tsunami? An examination of municipal old-age dependency and age-friendly policy in Ontario, Canada. Journal of Urban Affairs40(5), 625-638
  3. Gibbs, Nancy (2010). There’s no point in doing good badly. Time. February 2012.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Edwards, F. L., Norman-Major, K. A., & Gooden, S. T. (2012). Cultural competency in disasters. Cultural competency for public administrators, 197-218.
  6. Edwards, F. L., Norman-Major, K. A., & Gooden, S. T. (2012). Cultural competency in disasters. Cultural competency for public administrators, 197-218.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Vaupel, J. W., Carey, J. R., & Christensen, K. (2003). Aging. It’s never too late. Science, 301(5640), 1679–1681.