I lucked out when I attended an American Society on Aging Conference in the late 1990s and met the person who has been (for lack of a better way of putting it) my aging mentor, Paul Kleyman. Back then, he was ASA’s publications guy: today he leads Ethnic Elders Newsbeat at New America Media.
As I niched myself into the geriverse – writing about diabetic retinopathy, what is and isn’t Alzheimer’s, end-of-life care, long-term care planning, senior fraud, family caregiving and more, I began to get a handle on how interconnected everything aging is.
And I realized that most people don’t know much about aging, including what “normal” aging is.
Or, that most of what people do know doesn’t come from aging experts – geriatricians, gerontologists, geriatric nurses, or social workers – it comes seeing how older adults are portrayed on television and/or ads for products and services, everything from Depends to estate planning, marketed specifically to older adults.
Or – and I admit for a while I was doing them – from the feel-good articles about 80-year-olds who were biking across the U.S., 90-year-old parachutists and centenarians who still went in to work every day. Those began appearing after Tom Perls published articles based on the data from his New England Centenarian Study and the publication of the 1998 book, “Successful Aging.”
While the articles and the book were based on sound research and data, the people studied or profiled were, for the most part, statistical outliers whose long lives were made possible by their genes, sociodemographic status and a lifetime of excellent health care.
The dilemma of burden
My “a-ha” moment – the day I consciously realized how little even educated people know about the erratic and sometimes bumpy trajectory that aging takes – came about a decade ago.
I’d written an article on tips and strategies to use when caring for an aging loved one with multiple chronic conditions for a Cleveland publication. The day I e-mailed it to the editor, she called and asked why I’d titled the article, “Dealing with Caregiver Burden.”
“Who,” she asked, “will read an article with that title?”
I patiently explained that caregiver burden is real, that it’s a well-documented experience for caregivers, that it’s totally normal for people to feel burdened; and that there’s a well-respected test which has been used since the 1980s to measure and diagnose caregiver burden.
Her response: “Readers won’t get it. Give me a better title.”
I caved, suggesting “Dealing with the challenges that come with caregiving” instead.
By the time we hung up, however, I had put my finger on the cognitive dissonance that had been bouncing around in my head for some time: “They still don’t get it. What am I doing wrong?” My editor heard what I said, but she didn’t have the background – a decade of deep-diving research, the hundreds of interviews, the been-there/done that experiences accumulated over the years – to understand that practically everything related to aging – end-of-life care, Medicare, estate planning, senior fraud, Alzheimer’s disease – is a vast, nuanced, complex and profoundly scary subject.
What the experts know
Fast forward 10 years to the just-published report, Gauging Aging: Mapping the Gaps Between Expert and Public Understanding of Aging in America.
Think of this report as CliffsNotes for aging issues.
Its breakdown of what experts know, what the public believes, and how little overlap there is between the two, is dead-on, as well as providing necessary background for deep-diving, thought-provoking articles.
Its easy-to-read, bullet-pointed format makes it a gold mine of ideas for those articles, and page layouts make it easy to make notes in the margins.
And, perhaps most telling of all, its very publication is a clarion call to experts in academia and aging services to work with the media to develop messages and strategies that don’t just dispel ageist stereotypes but also communicate the complexities and uncertainties that come with aging and caring for those who are aging.
Webinar on Tuesday
To kick off discussion of the report on Tuesday, May 5, at 2 p.m. EDT, its authors will participate in a webinar, “Reframing Aging: Understanding an Changing the way Americans Think About Aging,” sponsored by Grantmakers in Aging. Click here to register for it. (Update: Here are the slides from the webinar; we’ll link to a recording when it’s available.)