ReFraming Aging

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Jolene Fassbinder, MSG, MACM, Program Officer, Archstone Foundation, CA
Nathaniel Kendall-Taylor, PhD, Vice President for Research, FrameWorks Institute, DC
Laura Robbins, MS, MBA, Founder and Principal, Laura A. Robbins Consulting, LLC, NC


This session explored the challenges to gaining public support for better policies and services for older adults. A recent study, commissioned by Leaders of Aging Organizations, has found that some of this difficulty is due to deeply held cultural understandings of aging and older Americans—understandings that support profound misconceptions about today’s older adults. These beliefs blunt people’s desire to support changes that would improve outcomes for older Americans and society more generally, and serve as the underpinnings of issues such as ageism.

Laura Robbins, who is managing the ReFraming Aging project, opened the luncheon plenary session with a brief overview. The project grew out of discussions in 2012 among representatives of leading aging organizations. They realized that each organization was having to devote considerable resources and time to countering widely held misperceptions about aging and older adults, and that if they worked collaboratively to help reframe how older adults are understood, each could then spend their resources more efficiently to deliver their specific message.

The collaborative includes eight leading aging organizations: AARP, the American Federation for Aging Research, the American Geriatrics Society, the American Society on Aging, Grantmakers In Aging, the Gerontological Society of America, the National Council on Aging, and the National Hispanic Council on Aging. The organizations in the collaborative collectively provide access to 37 million older adults; 6,000 specialized health professionals; 2,800 researchers and physicians; 5,000 practitioners, educators, administators, policymakers, business people, researchers, and students; more than 100 philanthropies; and several hundred community-based organizations, including 42 that reach 7 million Latino households.

The project also has garnered support from nine funders: AARP, Archstone Foundation, The Atlantic Philanthropies, Endowment for Health, The John A. Hartford Foundation, Rose Community Foundation, The Retirement Research Foundation, the Fan Fox and Leslie R. Samuels Foundation, and The SCAN Foundation.

Nathaniel Kendall-Taylor, a psychological anthropologist, explained that the FrameWorks Institute employs social scientists from across a wide range of disciplines to conduct sophisticated research and analysis of the public’s understanding of policy issues and develop evidence-based communications strategies to change misperceptions. “Of all the projects I’ve had the privilege of being involved with in the last nine years, this is the one that is getting the most buzz,” Kendall-Taylor said.

The first phase of the ReFraming Aging project was to identify the gaps between how aging and older adults are viewed by experts in the field and the general public. The result is the report Gauging Aging

Kendall-Taylor said that the best-intended messages can be lost in translation because of the way they are interpreted by the public. For example, when aging experts talk about the demographic trend to an aging population, many in the public interpret that information to mean that there’s really not much we can do to change a demographic trend, especially one that has already happened. And when aging and health experts stress the need for structures to support a healthy diet, exercise, and stress reduction, people hear that it’s really all about the choices individuals make. Some take responsibility, some don’t.

The audience your messages are addressed to consists of people who, in the words of best-selling author and linguistics expert Deborah Tannen, are “experienced and sophisticated veterans of perception,” he said.

“Public thinking is much more like a swamp of deep, implicit, cultural understandings that become active, some of which are dangerous in terms of our message and others of which can facilitate peoples’ expansive thinking about our issues,” Kendall-Taylor said. “So our job as communicators is to understand what is in this swamp. What are the understandings that are out there, lurking just beneath the surface, waiting to interact with our materials, waiting to interact with our messages, when we go out and communicate with the public?”

Effective framing requires knowing what is in the swamp that is eating your messages, and using proven strategies to get your message out alive, he said.

Kendall-Taylor showed a 2-minute video of interviews consisting of open-ended questions about aging that were conducted with people on the street in four locations.

Two common threads run through their comments. The first is that getting old is a bad thing, and that modernity is a threat to older adults. Kendall-Taylor said that perception is “simple but powerful and deep in terms of the culture.”

When people understand aging issues through an individualistic lens, believing they primarily come down to individual lifestyle choices, it results in “an incredibly fatalistic” view that nothing can be done, he said.

The second thread was an “us vs. them” mentality, in which the public is “us” and older adults are “them.”

“When you ask people to think about resources, they go to a zero sum model in which more for them means less for us—which is a very unproductive and difficult place to start if you’re going to get people to some of the ideas you want them to engage in.”

One other troubling thing revealed in the video interviews and research is an almost complete inattention to the issue of ageism.

Kendall-Taylor recommended that anyone involved in communications about aging should do the following:

  • Show how context influences individual action. “Do not let individualistic models run rampant unchecked by a larger structural approach,” he said. Explain how intervention leads to changes in outcome, and focus on systemic solutions.
  • Tell stories, but don’t make individual choices the reason why the positive outcome occurred.  Stress the systems and supports that contributed to success.
  • Work on how you portray the future to avoid a fatalistic, nostalgic perspective.
  • Do your best to put ageism on the map, explaining what it is, what causes it, and potential solutions.
  • Avoid messages that frame aging as a looming crisis. “It’s not an impending doom, it’s not a tsunami,” Kendall-Taylor said.

During the second phase of the project, Kendall-Taylor said, FrameWorks will design and develop empirically tested reframing tools to specifically address the gaps in understanding.

In her presentation offering a funder’s perspective on the project, Jolene Fassbinder said the overarching issue behind ReFraming Aging is ageism. “It’s the very thing that influences the work we do in aging, healthcare, public and organizational policy, our efforts in workforce development, in the work we do around social justice issues, capacity building, and the list goes on…,” she said.

Fassbinder noted that the term was first coined by Dr. Robert Butler in 1969. 

“Nearly 50 years later, we have not made a lot of progress,” she said. ”We know that it still exists today. Why ReFraming Aging? It’s really about time, isn’t it?”

The project, Fassbinder said, “Provides an opportunity to change the culture we see every day around aging – to move beyond ageism”. ReFraming Aging helps create new partnerships and opportunities to address the ageism we see, and the impact it has on the health of older adults, the workforce needed to care for an aging population, and policy and programs to support them.  

She recounted visiting her ailing, aging aunt, and asking what was going on with her. “She’s old,” her cousin replied. In reality, her aunt was severely depressed.  Not unlike others, it was easier for her cousin to think her mom was “old.”  

Fassbinder also admitted to being baffled that there are not more people clamoring for careers in the aging field. “I think gerontology is the hottest degree you can have in the world today,” she said. “I don’t understand why programs are closing. We need to move beyond ageism." 

She encouraged grantmakers to think about how the work being done with ReFraming Aging aligns with their mission, vision, and values, and how it impacts their grantees and stakeholders. Fassbinder also invited grantmakers to consider how we all can effectively and collaboratively expand the choir to reframe aging.

Source: 2015 Grantmakers In Aging Annual Conference

Powerpoint Presentations

ReFraming Aging

For More Information

Frameworks Institute

Gauging Aging: Mapping the Gaps Between Expert and Public Understandings of Aging in America


“This 2015 GIA Conference Highlight is brought to you through the generous support of The SCAN Foundation.”




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