Moving America Forward

These Are the Four Things You Should Never Say to Older Americans

November 9, 2016
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These Are the Four Things You Should Never Say to Older Americans
The AARP's Disrupt Aging campaign encourages people to look at growing older as an opportunity. Photo by Ian Waldie/Getty Images
Because life doesn’t stop after retirement.

Drugstore shelves are lined with anti-aging products: creams to erase wrinkles, supplements to stimulate thinning hair, miracle pills claiming to restore damaged cells. If there’s one endeavor that unites us, it’s that most Americans desperately want to preserve their youth.

When people ask Kamili Wilson, VP of AARP’s Enterprise Initiatives and a NationSwell Council member, how they can turn back the clock, she has a quick answer: “You don’t.” People might not want to come to terms with their aging faces and bodies, says Wilson, but that’s just reality. “It’s a process we all experience, if we’re fortunate enough. How can we consider that an opportunity, versus a challenge that we wish we could avoid?” Disrupt Aging, a new initiative by AARP spearheaded by Wilson, is subverting long-held assumptions about getting old. Instead of waging war on one’s gray hair, Wilson suggests that we ask ourselves, “How do I age with purpose? How can I feel comfortable with the age I’m at?”

As Americans continue to live longer, the Disrupt Aging campaign points out that vitality can be found at any stage of life. But embracing that notion requires a shift in our collective mindset. NationSwell consulted with experts on aging to zero in on easy ways that everyone can rupture stereotypes in everyday conversation.

1. “It must be pretty depressing, watching yourself get old.”
“We’ve found as people get older, they fear their opportunities start to shrink,” says Heidi Sternheim, a brand strategist at AARP. “The truth is that age is no longer a defining factor in life, and the way we are aging now is a lot different than in the past. We’re staying healthier longer. We’re reinventing how we work and play. Yet we’ve found, through our own research, that most of our beliefs about aging have remained about the same.” In other words, growing older doesn’t have to be limiting, as long as you have the right mindset. “Aging is not about decline, but about growth,” Sternheim argues.

2. “Mom, women your age don’t dress like that anymore.”
In too many portrayals, older people wear oversize, scratchy sweaters. Their hair is unkempt, and they shuffle along with a cane. “The stereotype is that a person peaks in their career in their 40s, and heading into their 50s and 60s, they slow down cognitively and physically,” says Wilson. But to her, that couldn’t be further from the truth. All you had to do is pick up the newspaper in the past few months, she says, to see two “over 50s”— 70-year-old Donald Trump and 69-year-old Hillary Clinton — enduring a grueling election campaign. “That is one misperception, that there’s not a lot of energy, passion or enthusiasm,” she says. To that end, there is no reason for adult children to dampen their parents’ vivaciousness, no matter what form it takes.

3. “You’re just not what we had in mind for the job opening.”
Sexism, racism, homophobia: Most of us are familiar with these forms of discrimination. Less discussed yet equally prevalent is ageism, the wrongheaded belief that a middle-aged hire won’t adjust to a new workplace as well as a fresh-out-of-college twentysomething. For starters, tossing out job applications from non-millennials is illegal. And it may also be short-sighted, adds Edward Newburn, who works in AARP’s chief-of-staff office. “With age comes wisdom. Not to discredit [a young person’s] intellect, but wisdom is something that is acquired over time,” he says. “Younger individuals are still in development, whereas an older worker would have more concrete skills.” Another benefit of taking a closer look at a prospective older employee? “A diversity of viewpoints will have more luck reaching a range of customer groups than one age cohort alone,” says Wilson.

4. “Sorry to say, Dad, the nursing home looks like our only option.”
The nursing home is “probably the most dreaded place anybody can think of ending up in,” Newburn says. The cafeteria food, repetitive bingo games and medicine carts parked in the hallways all suggest a dreary end. Recently, senior housing has shifted away from this “antiquated, hospital-style system,” as Newburn describes it, to giving elders more choice about their final residence. One option is simply to stay in one’s home and hire nurses or other helpers to drop by daily. Another is to move into small communes. At residences connected to The Green House Project, a dozen elders maintain independent, private rooms but share kitchens, dining areas and other common spaces in the facility.

SO … WHAT IS OLD? LET’S RETHINK AGING

“We want to change how people think about aging — that it’s not based on a number, but on a person’s contribution and living the way he or she wishes regardless of age,” Sternheim says. Here are small, yet impactful, ways to further that mission.

1. “What do you want to do next?”
Life expectancy for the average American has rocketed up to 78.8 years old. That means today’s retirement age — partial benefits are available after 62 years old — isn’t an expiration date; rather, it’s another milestone, marking the start of a second career, an adventurous period of global travel or the continuation of a cherished hobby or academic classes.

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2. “Thanks for watching the kids tonight!”
It’s true that 60 million Americans receive monthly checks from Social Security. But not participating in the formal workplace doesn’t mean that older people are lazy. Just the opposite, in fact. “Grandparents play a critical role in the overall family’s responsibilities,” Sternheim points out. For one, they are often very involved in their grandkids’ lives, helping their adult children juggle work and family. During a prolonged illness, one spouse often cares for the other. And there are plenty of older adults who volunteer their time to causes they care about. “They’re not just sitting back and watching the Social Security check come in,” Sternheim stresses.

3. “What was it like to live through the Summer of Love?”
There’s no wrong way to ask about elders about their past life experiences, says Newburn. Questioning about specific events in history — “Did you watch or listen to the JKF-Nixon debate?” — or asking about life in general, pre-internet, are useful ways to bridge the generational divide.

4. “Here, I’ll set you up with a Facebook account.”
When we think of mentorship, we usually visualize a sage, older tutor imparting career advice to a younger colleague. But the exchange can go both ways, in what Newburn calls “reverse mentoring.” Young people proficient in the latest technology can teach their elders how to use FaceTime, upload pictures to Facebook or sign up for online classes. Sometimes, it’s a matter of starting with the fundamentals: bookmarking a few favorite sites or marking the buttons for brightness and volume.

By tweaking our expectations of what older folks are capable of, and what they’re interested in, we can help eliminate unfair stereotypes. After all, one day we’ll all be there.

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