Draining the Swamp of Ageism

The National Council on Aging says we need new ways to think about our aging population and solutions to the challenges of aging.

Energetic, active seniors

Swamps often get a bad rap (think politics). But they're also a good metaphor to explain how easy it can be to get bogged down in dangerous habits.

When it comes to communicating about aging, the FrameWorks Institute uses a swamp to explain the unproductive ways our nation talks about growing older. FrameWorks has been working with the National Council on Aging (NCOA) and seven other national aging organizations to reframe the story of aging. Step one, they say, is to avoid getting stuck in the swamp of ageist thinking. Here are some spots to avoid.

Us vs. Them

Too often, we talk about older adults as a different group of people — separate from others. In reality, we're all aging, and we all will face similar issues and challenges as we grow older.

And regardless of age, most of us want the same things — good health, economic security, and the ability to live independently. So, when we talk about what older adults want and need, it's more productive to frame it as a collective need for everyone in our society.

Ideal vs. Perceived "Real"

We've all seen the ads. The "I've fallen and I can't get up" ads that depict getting older as an inevitable and irrevocable downfall marked by physical deterioration, decline in mental capacity, and dependence.

But professionals who work with older adults know this is not the full story. Yes, older adults face challenges — as do people of all ages. But older adults also have a wealth of knowledge and wisdom to contribute to society, and they can and want to stay active and self-sufficient.

When trying to explain what older adults need, and to gain support for public programs, it can be tempting to play the fear or sympathy card. But what if we flipped the script? What if we appealed to people's sense of justice instead?

We all deserve to maintain our health, security, and independence. That means we have a collective responsibility to work together to ensure that everyone — especially those who are struggling — has access to needed services and supports to make this a reality.


It's also easy to believe that the problems of an aging society are just too huge to solve. Some say that Social Security, for example, is doomed because there simply aren't enough workers to support the growing number of beneficiaries.

But this fatalistic way of communicating stops most listeners in their tracks. When a problem seems too overwhelming, people shut down. What works better, according to FrameWorks, is to focus on why the problem exists — and then outline potential solutions. Where does the process break down and what are achievable, incremental steps we can take to fix it?

A Well-Framed Narrative

To build understanding about the real story of aging, to shift people's perspective, and to generate support for solutions, we advocates need to change the narrative. FrameWorks offers this three-question formula for an effective approach:

  1. Why does this matter? Start by talking about a shared value people hold. In its research, FrameWorks found that the values of ingenuity (innovative solutions) and justice (doing what is fair) worked best.
  2. How does this work? If something is not working, why not? Use metaphors and examples to explain the problem and why it needs to change.
  3. What can we do about it? End by providing solutions. Show what will work, and how.

Reframing aging is not something any of us can accomplish alone or quickly. But together, we can begin to sidestep the alligators in the swamp — and tell our story in a way that more people will listen. Keep the conversation going! Learn more in FrameWork’s Reframing Aging Toolkit

Source: The National Council on Aging (NCOA), a respected national leader and trusted partner to help people aged 60+ meet the challenges of aging. Their mission is to improve the lives of millions of older adults, especially those who are struggling. Through innovative community programs and services, online help, and advocacy, NCOA is partnering with nonprofit organizations, government, and business to improve the health and economic security of 10 million older adults by 2020.