A Change is in Order
At OATS and Senior Planet, our mission is to harness technology to change the way we age. It drives our strategy and is the basis for all our programs, so it’s essential to understand what we mean by changing the way we age, and how we translate this into operational terms. But first, let’s explore what we believe is not going right.
There are a lot of things wrong with how we deal with aging in America today. We underinvest in geriatricians and overinvest in nursing homes. We drive people out of the workforce when they still have the desire and capability to contribute. We have created an age-segregated society where older and younger people rarely socialize, collaborate, or create together. We are facing unprecedented growth in the proportion of our population that is old, yet we have failed to update or modernize our public policies or social practices to prepare for these changes or to care for the people who will, in increasing numbers, need our help.
After working with seniors and technology for fifteen years, we have developed some distinct ideas about what’s wrong with how we do “aging” today. Ours is not a universal point of view and there are many worthy organizations helping seniors today who bring very different approaches to diagnosing this problem. But as with all meaningful work, ours begins with a particular vantage point. One that is rooted in grassroots activism, an optimism about social change, and a faith in the potential of older people. It’s a vantage point born from tens of thousands of hours of working side-by-side with seniors determined to learn, to grow, and to change themselves and the world around them. Here’s how we see the problem:
Older adults are invisible.
Aging is viewed through a lens of negativity.
Society has disempowered older adults.
Our culture is permeated by ageism, a pervasive and corrosive bias that often manifests in simply ignoring the presence and importance of older people. In a society that places little value on being old (aside from a nostalgic and somewhat condescending respect for “wisdom”), seniors have been scrubbed from our physical and social spaces. Many social settings—in commerce, fashion, nightlife, popular music—are informally age-segregated and older adults are rarely or never visible. Unsurprisingly, seniors report feeling unwelcome and, when they do venture to contribute their voices, unheard. Even in social work and medicine, programs offering geriatric specializations and placements have been notably under-subscribed; today we face an increasing mismatch between the growing population of older adults and a shrinking workforce of people interested in working with them.
We live in an era of increasing life-spans, improving health and mobility for people over 60, and expanding possibilities for what older adults can create and produce. Yet, Americans continue to associate aging with decline, sickness, impairment, and dependency, and our cultural framework for aging remains mired in outdated stereotypes of seniors—caught in the image of the old lady eating cat food, or the slumped nursing home patient in a gown. To be sure, cognitive and physical decline often accompany aging, especially in the more advanced years, but aging is not about frailty or impairment. For many older adults, their older years are their best ones and they are seizing their most valuable time on earth to fulfill themselves.
Unfortunately, we live in a culture where “senior moment” ranks alongside receiving your first AARP card as a harbinger of loss and inadequacy.
This is what we mean when we say at OATS that we want to change the way we age.