Leading Age Magazine Explores Ageism

LeadingAge is the professional organization representing not-for-profit aging services providers across the nation.

  • The mission of LeadingAge: To be the trusted voice for aging in America.
  • Its vision: An America freed from ageism.
  • Its promise: Inspire. Serve. Advocate.

The article below appears in the January/February 2017 issue of LeadingAge Magazine. LeadingAge asked members to tell where ageism can crop up in their day-to-day work. Kendal at Oberlin is one of the featured organizations.

Understanding the Ageism Around Us


Many LeadingAge members are now focused on the challenges of ageism, as voiced in the organization’s new mission statement. But what exactly is ageism, and how can it be addressed? Here is a look at a variety of member viewpoints, along with some of the steps they are taking to introduce a new understanding of older adulthood.

Understanding Ageism

David Gehm is president and CEO of Wellspring Lutheran Services in Flint, MI. He sees ageism as “an unrecognized bias against older people, including the expectation that they are less interesting and have less value than younger clients and patients. Despite paying lip service, we are not a culture that reveres aging.”

Gehm tells the story of a nursing professor advising his students not to waste their career in senior care. ‘Do real nursing first, and then you can slow down with older people.’” As a state-wide organization, Wellspring has relationships with schools of nursing and universities, and so Gehm contacted the dean of nursing to discuss his concerns.

“This is a perfect example of what appears to be acceptable bias,” said Gehm. “We would certainly condemn such an attitude in the context of race, ethnicity or gender.”

“At Wellspring,” says Gehm, “We are building an intergenerational model component in all our programs. Anything new—a building, a service, a community activity—must have an intergenerational model, with the goal of a lasting and meaningful integrated relationship among age groups.

“For example, at our 2017 children’s grief camp we want to bring together both old and young with the experience of grieving,” Gehm says. “If we cross the generations here what do we get? It’s more than talking. It’s an antidote for ageism.”

When asked what opened his mind to the presence of ageism, Gehm referred to Disguised, a True Story. The book’s author, Pat Moore, described disguising her young self as an elderly woman and observing the ways she was treated.

“The book was a game-changer for me,” says Gehm. “It’s required reading now for a lot of my staff.”

Like Gehm, Tim Rogers believes self-awareness is essential in combatting ageism. Rogers is executive director of Someren Glen Retirement Community, Centennial, CO, part of Christian Living Communities. Someren Glen offers a full continuum of services to 250 clients.

“I’ve learned to be aware of my own responses to ageist language,” says Rogers. “I grew up in New Orleans, watching the struggle for school desegregation. I saw as a young man I had a choice to make about how I respond to my environment. Today, in my work, the challenge is ageism rather than racism. How will I react? I must be intentional.”

Priscilla Haynes thinks ageism is the idea that older adults aren’t supposed to enjoy life or thrive by being of service. She’s been working with older adults for 30 years and is now executive director of Santa Clara Methodist Retirement Foundation, which owns and operates 2 high-rise senior communities in Santa Clara and Campbell, CA.

When Haynes joined the foundation team, she introduced service coordinators, a home-based health care specialist and a program manager to promote active, healthy aging. She believes that treating residents with respect while engaging them in meaningful activities will promote a longer, happier and useful life.

Helping Staff Understand Ageism

Susan McMenamin, director of human resources at The Hill at Whitemarsh, Lafayette Hill, PA, thinks ageism, like any prejudice, is a series of quick surface judgments. This life plan community in suburban Philadelphia uses experiential training to help staff better understand the experience of their clients. For example, they work with an image from Tom Hussey’s remarkable “Reflections” series of photographs showing older adults gazing at images of their much younger selves.

“We discuss what the elderly man sees in the mirror and compare this to what we see when we look at the man himself. And we talk about the saying, ‘Life doesn’t get easier or more forgiving, we get stronger and more resilient.’ We want our staff to understand and respect this about our residents,” says McMenamin. “An 80-year-old woman, who appears exhausted, may in fact be vibrant and full of life, something to discover in thoughtful conversation.”

Carol Silver Elliott is also concerned about the assumptions staff may bring to their clients and patients. Silver Elliott, president and CEO of Jewish Home Family in Rockleigh, NJ, says, “While staff may be warm and good, they may not realize that their client has had a meaningful life, contributing in many ways to the world.” She encourages staff to be well-informed about a resident’s backstory. “When we talk about things that matter to a client, we create a connection and encourage a response.”

“We need,” says Silver Elliott, “to value the opinion, experience and preferences of even the most impaired among us.” For example, Jewish Home Family’s Opening Minds Through Art program is built not on children’s coloring books but on the techniques and theory of modern art. Staff speak not of cute pictures but of pattern, contrast and color. Even for individuals with dementia, this approach enables them to continue to make choices, paint brush in hand, about the images they want to create.

Ageism and Language

Silver Elliott, like many LeadingAge members, is acutely aware of the place of language in her work.

“Choice of words is so important. People who are adults do not wear diapers, but disposable undergarments, not bibs, but clothing protectors. They are assisted in eating, not fed.”

Bill Warne, a marketing specialist for Westminster-Canterbury of Lynchburg in Virginia, has long been aware of how prospective clients are frequently put off by ageist language in marketing campaigns. While existing residents may have grown comfortable with words like “facility” and “admissions” and “activities,” he says the growing boomer population tends to find these distasteful because they suggest some kind of “home for the aged.”

Warne’s chart, “Universal Language: Better Words for Launching Culture Change,” has more than 50 entries and is something he shares widely. (Copies may be obtained by emailing him at Bill@SalesVitality.com.)

Ageism in the Larger Culture

Kendal at Oberlin, a life plan community in northeastern Ohio, helps staff see their work not in terms of age, but of relationships. The organization serves over 330 residents from 36 states and Washington, DC.

Maggie Stark, director of admissions and marketing, says, “There is a need for staff to understand the cycle of living and why older people may behave as they do. For example, we’ve had an extensive program on dementia training in 2016. And we invite staff to consider the vibrancy of much older people who are still independent.”

But in the larger world, the situation can be more difficult. In its advertising, Kendal at Oberlin and its corporate organization uses photos of actual residents, not stock photos. One publisher thought Kendal’s real residents appear “too old” for magazine readers. Unwilling to support a publication so against their values, Kendal at Oberlin and the Kendal corporate office chose to discontinue advertising with a major national magazine in 2011.

Working With Residents to Combat Ageism

Someren Glen’s Rogers says “Ageism is an overwhelming focus on what older adults are less capable of. We want our residents to recognize the ageism prevalent in our culture. We want them to use their own voices, to say to others, including their peers, ‘I have the ability to make choices, to assert myself, to do many of the same things I’ve always done.’”

At new resident gatherings, for example, Rogers invites residents back into the cocktail party “what do you do” conversations that often disappear after retirement. “We encourage them to remember the value of their contributions.”

At the same time, Rogers asks newcomers to consider the future. “Before you moved here you were in a community you gave to,” he asks. “What do you expect to contribute here? We’d like you to give now as you did then.”

Jane Sherwin is a writer who lives in Belmont, MA.