How we talk about aging
As a publication geared toward readers over 50 (and largely written and produced by people over 50 or close to it), the Beacon is very sensitive to the issue of how we talk about aging. At least, we think we are.
That’s why I bring up the subject today. I’d like to know your opinion.
First, I should start out by noting that my wife, Judy, and I started the Beacon when she was in her late 20s and I was in my early 30s. For many years, I didn’t even dare to write an opinion column on what we used to call “senior issues,” as I felt my perspective would be inauthentic, given my age.
But I have, so to speak, grown into this column over the past 32 years. Regular readers may recall me recounting my personal efforts helping my parents (of blessed memory) as they faced challenges in their health, housing situation, and hospital and rehab stays.
Those were educational experiences for me, giving me more understanding of, and empathy for, readers and their families with those issues.
Beyond this column, our managing editors and I have chosen to write, solicit or reprint stories in our regular health, financial, housing, travel and arts sections that we thought would resonate with readers and ideally inspire you towards a lifestyle and retirement years filled with meaning and fulfillment as well as pleasure.
In choosing to write about these topics, and in selecting interesting older adults and role models for our cover stories, we were intentionally “talking about aging” in a positive way. Or so I always thought.
Recently, I was introduced to the work of a think tank called the FrameWorks Institute. In a nutshell, its mission appears to be to help public policy advocates and members of the media reframe the way people think about important issues (such as aging, among many others) to make it more likely that public perceptions and, eventually, public policy will lead to positive change.
I support that in principle. But when I looked more closely into their suggested “reframings” of various issues related to aging, I was less sure I supported their approach.
My first exposure was to their discussion of how to approach the question: What does an aging population mean for programs like Social Security?
Now I have written about this issue frequently, almost annually, for many years. I have noted that the demographic shift to a larger proportion of older adults has been evident for many decades and yet Congress has been slow to adjust or even plan for the rising costs of Social Security and Medicare.
I’ve talked about the increasing share of the federal budget these programs will take up, and urged readers to contact their legislative representatives and support a forthright analysis and action.
I’ve also tried to calm readers, noting that there are no proposals to affect the benefits of current retirees, and the sooner Congress acts to preserve Social Security and Medicare for the long term, the more gradual any change will be.
Well, I now see that this approach of mine neatly fits what FrameWorks calls “The False-Start Answer.” They critique such an approach as sowing fear and anxiety, and tapping into the public’s “default perception” that the government is inefficient and unable to solve problems.
The think tank suggests reframing one’s answer to see the “opportunity” an aging population offers to “develop solutions” in keeping with our society’s long tradition of “innovative approaches to challenges.”
They suggest describing Social Security and Medicare as examples of innovative public policies that support better aging, and pivot to suggest “restructuring public policies on issues like work and retirement, transportation, housing, health care and community-building.”
The think tank calls this “an Ingenuity Narrative” that uses a “building momentum” metaphor and reframes the facts about changing demographics “to point to the civic benefits aging provides…which helps to foster optimism about the future.”
I can see that this approach is less anxiety provoking than mine, but I feel it completely fails to address a real problem seriously and honestly.
Perhaps their approach could be helpful in tamping down push-back some younger generations might attempt in the face of adjustments to Social Security. But to my mind it has no place in speaking either to older adults themselves or to those in government with responsibility for funding and maintaining Social Security and Medicare.
I’d like to think it’s possible to be upbeat and positive about aging in general and still call attention to financial and social concerns that could lead to a crisis if ignored.
Of course, I could be wrong. So, now I’d like to ask what you think. Do you think my, shall we say, forthright approach would impel you to think differently about Social Security and take action, such as contacting your congressperson?
Or would you feel more empowered and moved to act if you read the ingenuity narrative and felt optimistic about Social Security’s future?
As I mentioned before, here at the Beacon we like to be upbeat and help our readers learn the best ways to maintain their health, carefully spend their wealth, and enjoy all that life has to offer at any age.
But we also feel our readers do not need to be shielded from reality. After all, you have had the experience of facing and addressing challenges your whole lives.
Are we mistaken? Please share your thoughts via email, letters or at our website: thebeaconnewspapers.com/contact-us.
NOTE: I have greatly condensed the FrameWorks material, and have only shown you one example. You can see exactly how they address the questions of Social Security, ageism and successful aging at bit.ly/FrameWorksFAQ.