Aging used to be simple: People were born, moved through childhood into adolescence and adulthood, through midlife into old age (if they lived that long), and then died. They often established a home, a family and a vocation, before retiring to live out their “declining” years. Today, with 30-plus years added to the life span, a new view of aging has emerged—one filled with anticipation and accomplishment. Standing in the way of optimal aging, however, is that familiar foe: ageism. Whether the older adult is viewed as a burden to family and society or as a “superhero,” unrealistic perceptions of aging can, and do, have a negative impact on the mental and physical health of this population. The media and marketers use fear-based communications to sell “anti-aging” products and services, driving home the message that aging – a natural process in life – is negative and should be fought every step of the way.
The reality is we are all aging. And we all will experience old age, if we’re lucky enough to live that long.
While negative portrayals and messages of aging are common when marketers and the media address the older market, most of the time this population is practically invisible to them. Only five percent of marketing dollars are spent on individuals over age 50. Together with the lack of inclusive, appropriate products, this neglect can make older consumers feel irrelevant, even though they have money to spend.
What the media and marketers miss in all the above is the reality. By addressing the real challenges that older adults face and fulfilling the opportunities they desire for lifelong experiences, you and your organization can significantly impact the self-perception of these consumers and their quality of life, as well as the way others perceive them. To do so requires you and your staff, your organization and your suppliers to become advocates for this consumer group. How? Promote the message and language of autonomy, while fostering a “can do” attitude among customers. You will see a return on this investment in many ways, from consumer loyalty, to increased business, to a positive position in the greater community.
Of course, to achieve the above, you may also need to address perceptions within your organization. Columbia University’s International Longevity Center in New York points out four categories of ageism: personal, institutional, intentional and unintentional. Living in an ageist society, we are often unaware of how stereotypes of aging shape our perceptions of older adults. Greater sensitivity begins with increased awareness.
Bottom line, perceptions become reality. The only way to change old perceptions is to create a new reality.
A thought to ponder: What is the societal cost of ageism and exclusion, versus self-empowerment and inclusion?