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BEACON Senior News - Western Colorado

Changing the narrative on aging

Jun 06, 2019 03:31PM ● By Debra Dobbins

It seemed like a reasonable request. When she moved into a rehab facility, my mother, Ruth S. Gossen, Ed.D., insisted that she be called “Dr. Ruth.” She didn’t need the more formal “Dr. Gossen,” but she did want acknowledgment for the 10 long years she’d invested in getting her doctorate. Her advanced degree is a big part of her identity. Fortunately, most caretakers in her facility caught on quickly.

By insisting on this form of address, my mother stood up against ageism, though she probably hadn’t heard of the term.

Ageism is prejudice or discrimination based on a person’s age due to negative or inaccurate stereotypes. It’s endemic not only in our society but across the world, according to presenters of a recent workshop called “Changing the Narrative” which was held at La Villa Grande Care Center, an event co-sponsor.

Ageism can cause mental and physical health issues, writes Liz Seegert for the online publication, “Covering Health.” These issues include “a decreased will to live, less desire to live a healthy lifestyle, an impaired recovery from illness, increased stress and a shortened lifespan.”

Ageism can be a big factor in the workplace. It certainly doesn’t help that the government lists 25-54 as the prime working ages, which could imply that workers older than 54 are not quite up to snuff. They may be passed over for promotions, not invited to key meetings or not given the training that younger people are receiving. When firms downsize, older workers are often the first to be laid off.

What are some ways to counteract ageism? Janine Vanderburg, initiative manager of Changing the Narrative, suggested we change the way we think, talk and act about ageism in order to create age-friendly communities.

David McKendry, owner of Right at Home, a non-medical home care service that co-sponsored the event, agreed.

“I feel that as an agency that is helping seniors age in place, we need to be ambassadors for the idea of ageism,” he said.

Vanderburg explained that we all have “implicit bias,” which means messages acquired from childhood that “subconsciously form negative judgments about people based on their age.” The good news is if we become aware of those biases we are not so likely to act on them and “more likely to treat people fairly.”

An essential part of revised thinking is learning how to reframe a situation, which primarily depends upon word choice and lets people see the bigger picture.

Instead of using terms like “elderly,” use terms such as “older Americans.” Forego words like “battle” and “fight” to describe aging experiences and replace them with wording that builds momentum, such as: “aging is a dynamic process that leads to new abilities and knowledge we can share with our communities.”

Vanderburg said these increase positive attitudes toward aging, attitudes that older people and younger people are similar, support for policies that expand opportunities to contribute to community, support for policies that provide support for older people and their caregivers, and understanding that public policy can play a big role in how successfully people age.

For more resources, visit And remember, as Vanderburg told everyone in the audience, “We are all aging.” ■