04 Oct The Senior Living Industry, Cultural Editors and Stereotypes About Aging
The characters in the 2018 film Book Club prove to themselves, each other, and viewers that they are not the dotty old ladies the world has painted them to be. Image src: rogerebert.com
Let’s face it: Our society is obsessed with youth and beauty. The prevailing cultural belief is that once you turn 65, you are no longer attractive, healthy, active or productive. Yet research shows that 65-85 can be our most productive years. It is the time of greatest emotional maturity and brain complexity. Plus, older adults bring a wealth of experience and expertise to the table. It is our culture – more than the individual – that sets up and perpetuates the “downhill process” of aging.
Growing older is inevitable. Growing “old” is not. Whether or not we feel “old” depends on our own health status, activity level, relationships, spirituality and outlook. That said, it can be challenging to maintain a positive outlook when confronted with persistent, cultural stereotypes. We have all observed stereotypes about aging in the media and in popular culture:
- Elders are portrayed as helpless victims, sweet, vulnerable, child-like, incompetent.
- Elders who defy negative stereotypes are presented as unnatural, odd, bizarre, comical.
- Growing old is equated with inevitable deterioration and decline.
What is surprising is that these stereotypes are often reflected in interactions with those who are committed to caring for older adults, such as physicians, pharmacists, therapists, social workers, caregivers and family members. Stereotypical ideas don’t capture the diversity of the aging experience, and are damaging if they perpetuate the image of older adults as frail, helpless and sedentary.
Dr. Mario Martinez, founder of Biocognitive Science and author of “The Mind Body Code,” believes that genetics affect only 20-25% of a person’s longevity and health. The rest is related to cultural beliefs. He says we are all designed, from birth, to pay attention to “cultural editors.” Cultural editors are people and organizations that our culture has imbued with power within a certain context. They are parents, teachers, clergy, doctors, etc. These cultural editors have a lot of power to enhance or diminish your view of yourself. Many of these people and organizations don’t realize that they are creating a culture that could be either empowering or disempowering.
The senior living industry is in a significant position of power to help people live better lives. Not only by providing exceptional living environments and care, but also by curbing industry biases about age. When we fail to tailor our marketing materials to the modern older adult, we’re telling our consumers that we aren’t listening to what they want, and we’re complicit in perpetuating ageist stereotypes.
We recently had a client tell us that an image of an older woman walking down a path in Europe “was too young.” The woman appears slender and fit and is walking with a straight back. She’s facing away from the camera, so you can’t see her face or begin to guess at her age. Still, the client believed she was too young, even though we knew she fit the brief to a T: she is an older adult who looks healthy and active. Unfortunately, this is a conversation we’re very familiar with. We work every day to educate our clients about industry stereotypes.
3rdThird is excited about shifting the paradigm. Our goal at 3rdThird is to help organizations move their brands forward by creating communications and imagery that are as inspirational for a 75-year-old as a 25-year-old, without turning older people into caricatures.