By Moira O’Neil, Abigail Haydon, and Nathaniel Kendall-Taylor
Advocates and experts working on behalf of older Americans have long suspected that media representations of aging are inaccurate. Scholarly research confirms this assertion. Compared to other age groups, older adults—particularly older women—are grossly under-represented in the media (Raman et al., 2008). When the media do feature older adults, they present one of two extreme characterizations: frail, diseased, senile, and dependent—or active, healthy, and wholly independent (see, for example, Featherstone and Wernick, 2003; Holstein and Minkler, 2003; Katz, 2000; Rozanova, 2010; Rozanova, Northcott, and McDaniel, 2006).
These negative representations feed problematic public perceptions of the aging process and stereotypes about older Americans. Ironically, the media’s positive images of aging are just as unproductive, as they link successful aging to individual lifestyle and consumption choices (e.g., choosing to eat well, having the drive to exercise regularly, and being disciplined in financial matters). By equating successful aging with individual choice, and ignoring the social supports necessary to enact these decisions or the structural factors that constrain them, media depictions imply that most older Americans simply fail to choose to “age well.” These media patterns shape and constrain public opinion about aging.
Media is not the only source of information available to the public, however. Advocacy organizations disseminate an abundance of materials about older Americans via websites, magazines, newsletters, issue briefs, reports, and other formats. These materials are equally powerful in shaping public narratives about the process of aging. To the degree that these organizational materials reinforce media representations, they further contribute to the establishment of social norms about aging. To the degree that they offer alternative ways to think about aging, they have the potential to expand people’s perceptions. Understanding the stories advocacy organizations tell provides a more complete picture of how people think about aging and suggests ways to shift public understanding toward a wider, more productive public discourse on aging and older Americans.
This article presents results from an analysis of advocacy organizations’ narratives about aging and older adults. We focus on the implications of these results for those seeking to move public understanding in more productive directions, and for ultimately increasing support for policies and programs necessary to promote the well-being of older adults and to ensure their full participation in American society.
This research was conducted by the FrameWorks Institute, and is part of a larger collaborative project sponsored by the Leaders of Aging Organizations, a group administered by Grantmakers in Aging that includes AARP, the American Federation for Aging Research, the American Geriatrics Society, the American Society on Aging, the Gerontological Society of America, the National Council on Aging, and the National Hispanic Council on Aging. Laura Robbins, of Laura A. Robbins Consulting, LLC, and the Guest Editor for this issue of Generations, managed the project, which seeks to develop a new, evidence-based narrative about the process of aging, and the roles and contributions of older Americans in our society.
To conduct the study, we collaborated with our project partners to create a list of more than fifty organizations working on issues related to aging and older Americans. We then conducted a hyperlink analysis using a Web-based application called “Issue Crawler” to identify twenty of the most influential organizations in the field of aging. We gathered public-facing communication materials (e.g., press releases, mission statements, and reports) from each organization, and then coded these materials (n=171) for the presence or absence of the following set of narrative components:
- Topic: What is the issue or problem covered in the document?
- Value: What is at stake, or why is this issue a central concern?
- Cause: How does this problem work, and who or what is causing it?
- Success: How does the document characterize a more optimal outcome?
- Solution: Who or what is responsible for addressing the issue?
After coding each document, we used a technique called cluster analysis to identify narratives. This approach identifies the degree to which specific narrative elements co-occur across the set of organizational materials analyzed. Additional details on these methods are available elsewhere (Simon, O’Neil, and Haydon, 2015).
Advocacy Organizations’ Narratives of Aging and Older Adults
Our analysis found that advocacy organizations are disseminating six distinct narratives about aging and older adults. Figure 1 (below) shows the percentage of documents that contained each of these narratives, indicating which narratives are most prominent in discourse—and therefore most likely to shape the public’s thinking about aging and older Americans.
The “Throwaway Generation” narrative
The “Throwaway Generation” narrative focuses on negative treatment of older adults, particularly elder abuse and discrimination. This was the most frequent narrative used in advocacy materials. The narrative holds private industry—such as nursing homes, assisted living facilities, or private employers—accountable for the maltreatment of older adults. Proposed solutions typically involve changes to these institutions, such as greater oversight of employees who work with older Americans, or increased legal protections for workplace discrimination. The narrative asserts that the issue of elder abuse requires policy-level action. The narrative also frequently casts the maltreatment of older Americans as a violation of human and civil rights.
The “Vibrant Senior” narrative
The “Vibrant Senior” narrative centers on a particular definition of successful aging: the maintenance of physical activity. This narrative focuses on how older Americans must decide to remain active. Motivation, willpower, and individual action figure prominently in this narrative, as do “epiphany moments”—older adults’ realizations that their fates are in their hands, and they must decide to change their lives and become active if they are to enjoy their older years.
This narrative emphasizes the role of not only physical health and vitality, but also of mental and cognitive dimensions of health. It identifies a central role for family members in helping or impeding older adults’ ability to achieve the “Vibrant Senior” ideal. Finally, this narrative tends to link older adults’ physical well-being and activity to broader societal goals—often explaining how active older Americans contribute to national prosperity and collective economic well-being.
The “Independent Senior” narrative
The “Independent Senior” narrative focuses on autonomy as another dimension of successful aging. It elevates self-sufficiency as the marker of successful aging, and features discussions of transportation, social relationships, political engagement, financial independence, and the ability to make autonomous decisions about end-of-life care. Critically, it represents the need to ensure older adults can remain independent as a moral obligation, as well as a way to respect the wisdom of our aging population.
In telling this story, advocacy organizations often focus on the social and economic conditions that make independent living more or less likely to occur. They frame older adults’ independence as a public issue, focusing on the financial requirements of independent living, framing independence not simply as a matter
of choice, but as the result of a host of factors, including access to supports and resources.
The “Demographic Crisis” narrative
The “Demographic Crisis” narrative describes the “graying of the American population” as an impending social crisis with wide-reaching consequences. This narrative employs statistics related to demographic change in order to convey a sense of urgency about aging issues—the assumption being, presumably, that urgency will motivate readers to act.
This narrative also points to steps individuals should take to weather the upcoming demographic “storm.” For example, it urges policy makers to address housing issues that will result from an aging population. It is important to note, however, that this narrative holds older Americans and their families responsible for addressing their own housing needs.
The “Aging Workers” narrative
The “Aging Workers” narrative focuses on older adults’ social and civic engagement. It describes how older adults’ social relationships and skills can assist them in what is often perceived as a hostile labor market, how participation in the labor market fosters new kinds of social engagement, and how successful retirement allows older adults the ability to engage civically through volunteer opportunities.
The “Government as Problem” narrative
Advocacy organizations regularly point to governmental action as a causal factor in older Americans’ financial challenges. In particular, these stories decry the impact of federal budget cuts on older Americans’ financial stability.
Implications for Communicating About Aging and Older Adults
Of the 171 pieces analyzed, 49 percent lacked a dominant narrative. When people are confronted with an incomplete story, they fall back on their dominant understandings of how the issue works in order to “fill in the blanks.” Given the understandings that are available to people on this topic (Lindland et al., 2015), this filling-in process is not likely to result in the story that advocates and experts wish to tell. The need to explicitly provide these missing pieces to tell more complete stories is the major recommendation to emerge from this research.
An additional communications challenge is the way advocacy organizations promote ideals of successful aging as primarily a matter of individual choice. This research confirms other analyses that demonstrate the absence of policy-level solutions in public discussions of successful aging (Rozanova, 2010). While government action is referenced in relation to causing problems associated with aging, it is rarely a factor in positive or idealized descriptions of aging, nor is government present in any of these narratives as a source of remediation. Moreover, the two narratives that present idealized notions of aging—the “Vibrant Senior” and “Independent Senior”—fail to mention why public action is necessary for these ideals to become lived experience for older Americans.
The biggest problem among the dominant patterns of public understanding identified in our research is the common assumption that individuals are exclusively responsible for how they age (Lindland et al., 2015). This idealized vision of aging is rarely achievable in the real world, according to experts (Lindland et al., 2015). When advocacy organizations fail to link successful aging to policies that enable older Americans to remain active and socially engaged, they reinforce the public’s highly individualistic understandings of the aging process. The result is that people understand successful aging as the exclusive result of lifestyle choices, rather than recognizing the contribution of social supports, structures, and policies. Further, when the ideal is not achieved, Americans tend to assume that the reason for the failure lies in poor individual decision-making and lack of discipline and willpower.
Our interviews with experts in aging demonstrated that a central communications goal extant among those in the field is to focus on the opportunities associated with increased longevity, and the positive civic, social, and economic contributions of older Americans. Experts assert that realizing this potential requires adjustments to our public institutions, policies, and infrastructure. However, in their public-facing materials, advocacy organizations do not consistently explain the relationship between community, institutional and policy-level supports, and successful aging. This is more than a missed opportunity, as this omission gives space for the public’s current understandings to engage and gain momentum.
Advocacy organizations also are likely to tell problem-oriented stories—frequently highlighting the maltreatment of older Americans by employing the “Throwaway Generation” narrative. This suggests that advocacy organizations are focused on problems associated with aging, and on how these problems are caused by an inadequate social safety net. While it is understandable that advocacy organizations want to call attention to the challenges older Americans experience, problem-focused stories that do not regularly include alternate visions and concrete steps to achieve those visions risk cuing the public’s idea that aging is an inherently (and therefore immutably) negative process characterized by deterioration, senility, and dependence.
Conclusions and Recommendations
Advocacy organizations are important sources of public information about aging and older Americans. They have the power to shape or contest existing patterns of thinking. The following recommendations are designed to help communicators tell well-framed stories that have the potential to change the larger public discourse around this important topic.
Connect representations of successful aging to the implementation of effective social policies. Communicators should make direct linkages between problems, policies, and improved outcomes. Without this level of explanation, the public will equate aging outcomes with lifestyle choices, or will think about positive outcomes as “ideal,” but impossible to achieve in the “real” world. The following is an example of this explanatory approach:
We know that older Americans’ health and well-being improve when they have varied opportunities to stay socially engaged. But right now, far too many older Americans are isolated because they lack places to go and appropriate means of transportation. We need to ensure that all communities have opportunities for older adults to interact socially—such as community centers with programming for older Americans, farmers markets, and volunteer opportunities in our schools and libraries. And we need to make sure we give older adults reliable and safe ways to access these opportunities so that they can contribute to their communities.
Tell complete stories about the process of aging, the challenges faced by older adults, and the changes we can make to better support this group and their contributions. Communicators should tell complete and coherent stories, as they will have a better chance of disrupting the public’s tendency to “fill in the blanks” with default—and often unproductive—understandings. A good strategy is to complete the checklist below when crafting public-facing materials.
Does this communication:
- Clearly describe the problem or issue that impacts older Americans?
- Explicitly state why addressing the issue is important for all Americans, and what is at stake if we fail to act?
- Explain how the problem works, including who or what is causing the problem?
- Describe the goal, outcome, or what the situation ideally would look like?
- Provide concrete, public solutions to address the issue, and explain how these actions result in improved outcomes for older Americans?
Use values to remind the public of our collective responsibility to older Americans, and the collective benefits that accrue to all when we provide them with supports. Advocacy organizations are using values to remind members of the public of their obligations to older generations—their moral duties to care for older adults, to prevent them from experiencing harm, and to protect their rights. Along with imparting a sense of our collective responsibility, advocates should consistently emphasize how we all benefit when we ensure that older adults can contribute to our country. Advocates occasionally invoke older adults’ contributions to our collective prosperity, but they might also think about invoking values like Human Potential and Interdependence, which are iterated, as follows:
Only when we realize the talents and contributions of all Americans, no matter their age, can we move our country forward.
Because aging is a process we all experience, Americans of all ages do better when we make sure everyone has what they need to age successfully.
Provide clear, concrete, and public solutions when describing challenges related to aging. Audiences should always be presented with clear solutions to problems presented in communications. Communicators should also explain how a policy and solution would improve outcomes for older adults, thereby improving outcomes for society writ large. Solutions included in communications should match the scope of the problem presented. For example, if a problem is caused by failures in the system of social supports, the solution should identify how to put those systems in place, rather than focusing at the level of individual decision-making.
Avoid stories of the “Triumphant Senior,” whose well-being is the product of prudent choices. The media is filled with stories about older adults who saved for retirement, paid attention to their health, and, as a result, have exciting and vibrant lives in their “golden years.” Advocates should emphasize that individual behaviors happen in a larger social context. For example, stories about people who have successfully saved for retirement should include explanations of the social policies and supports that facilitated this outcome.
Avoid framing demographic change as an impending crisis. It is important that advocacy organizations strike the right balance between communicating the challenges associated with an aging population (the urgency of the situation), and a sense that this challenge is assailable (the efficacy of the solution). Stories that imply, or explicitly state, that we face an impending crisis are likely to overwhelm readers with the magnitude of the problem and ultimately lead to disengagement with the issue at hand— resulting in lower levels of issue and policy support.
Expanding the public discourse is a critical task for experts and advocates working to improve the well-being of older adults and to help our society better realize the civic, social, and economic contributions of this demographic group. To the extent that advocates can disseminate a new, productive story about the aging process and the role of older adults in American society—and make it a story that sticks—they can create new currents of public discourse that may gradually but powerfully shape our ability to consider how our public institutions, policies, and infrastructure can improve outcomes not only for older adults, but for our society as a whole.
Moira O’Neil is a senior researcher, sociologist, and associate director of Interpretation at the FrameWorks Institute in Washington, D.C. Abigail Haydon is the assistant director of Research at the FrameWorks Institute. Nathaniel Kendall-Taylor is a medical anthropologist and vice president for Research at
the FrameWorks Institute.
Acknowledgement: The authors would like to acknowledge Adam Simon for his analysis, which helped identify the media narratives that we discuss in the foregoing article.
Editor’s Note: This article is taken from the Fall 2015 issue of ASA’s quarterly journal, Generations, an issue devoted to the topic “Ageism in America: Reframing the Issues and Impact.” ASA members receive Generations as a membership benefit; non-members may purchase subscriptions or single copies of issues at our online store. Full digital access to current and back issues of Generations is also available to ASA members and Generations subscribers at Ingenta Connect. For details, click here.
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