This year we’re meeting in Seattle August 11-15. Can’t make it to the Pacific Northwest? Don’t worry, ChangingAging’s own Kavan Peterson will be on site to livestream broadcast select portions of the conference on August 13 and 14. This is an exciting opportunity to extend the reach and impact of this important gathering.
The Pioneer Network’s motto “Changing the Culture of Aging in the 21st Century” has put me in mind of a book chapter I recently completed for the upcoming 2nd volume of “Culture Change” published by Health Professions Press. I want to share an adaption from that chapter that is inspired by our collective work here at ChangingAging.org.
In this chapter I make the case that working cooperatively, we can use culture change methods and language to support the development of the most elder-rich culture in all of human history. We can “Change Aging”.
Revised selection from “Culture Change: Volume 2”
Taken as a whole, the culture change movement has developed a range of language and methods for contending with this struggle, and there is good reason that they can be adapted for use outside the field of aging services. The core principles of the Eden Alternative movement provide a case in point. It is worthwhile to examine these principles and ask how they might be expanded to embrace the needs of American society as a whole.
Ten Principles for Changing Aging
The three plagues of loneliness, helplessness, and boredom account for the bulk of suffering among our elders. Because the plagues of loneliness, helplessness, and boredom are rooted primarily in a cultural misunderstanding of aging, the solution to these problems must be cultural rather than biomedical. The ability to recast loneliness, for example, as a society-wide cultural affliction requires a deliberate expansion of the culture change mission beyond the confines of age and aging.
An elder-centered community commits to creating a human habitat where life revolves around close and continuing contact with plants, animals, and children. It is these relationships that provide the young and old alike with a pathway to a life worth living. The culture change movement’s insights into the value of crafting a new narrative that is capable of connecting our most pressing problems is essential to our progress as a society and as a nation. The culture change movement represents a reservoir of myth-making power that can be drawn on to solve problems vastly larger than those embodied in a distorted vision of aging.
Loving companionship is the antidote to loneliness. Elders deserve easy access to human and animal companionship. Our habit of defining loneliness as a strictly personal failure robs us of the opportunity to connect social isolation to a range of related and pressing public issues. What we need but do not yet have is a society-wide approach to problem solving that is founded on the value of social capital. Increasing a community’s stocks of relationship and companionship can and should be a basic strategy for dealing with problems that are derived from the atomization of contemporary society.
An elder-centered community creates opportunity to give as well as receive care. This is the antidote to helplessness. Alarmists who decry the aging of America as a financial catastrophe are right about one thing: It will be impossible to offer America’s older adults a dignified old age if all their needs are monetized and handed over to professional caregivers. Instead, we will need to rely on creating a skillful blend of financial and social capital to see us through this demographic challenge.
An elder-centered community imbues daily life with variety and spontaneity by creating an environment in which unexpected and unpredictable interactions and happenings can take place. This is the antidote to boredom. Although we inhabit a society with an apparently limitless supply of entertainment, boredom remains a powerfully corrosive ingredient of American life. The culture change movement’s deliberate injection of playfulness into the seemingly grim experience of long-term care offers proof that play can be a winning strategy. It is also a resource that can easily be enriched and expanded as the larger America changes in ways that support this approach to growth and happiness.
Meaningless activity corrodes the human spirit. The opportunity to do things that we find meaningful is essential to human health. The culture change movement is one of the largest, best-informed, and most politically neutral social forces, with a deep and practical understanding of how meaning is created. Although advocates of culture change will probably have many allies in this work, it cannot begin in earnest until the movement recognizes and embraces the need to address society-wide problems. We will need to escape the sometimes too comfortable confines of aging if we are going to fulfill our true potential.
Medical treatment should be the servant of genuine human caring, never its master. There is a broader problem of the medicalization of many seemingly unrelated elements of human experience (childbirth and the natural variation in learning styles among young people are just two examples). Culture change advocates that, when it comes to controlling costs, the problem is not aging as much as it is the medicalization of aging. We can and should advocate for a much more balanced approach to social problems that resists the tendency to seek a pill for every problem.
An elder-centered community honors its elders by deemphasizing top-down bureaucratic authority, seeking instead to place the maximum possible decision-making authority into the hands of the elders or into the hands of those closest to them. In an increasingly atomized and regimented society, we need the example of elder-centered communities to show people in all walks of life how they too can create “havens in a heartless world.” People of all ages benefit from the construction and maintenance of community-level social structures that can help people contend with the difficulties that are part of every human life.
Creating an elder-centered community is a never-ending process. Human growth must never be separated from human life. Culture change embraces the intrinsic value of growth for all people everywhere all the time. There is good reason to believe that this commitment could have a collateral effect of stimulating a culture-wide renaissance of human development.
Wise leadership is the lifeblood of any struggle against the three plagues. For it, there can be no substitute. Although the culture change movement’s relative obscurity makes it hard to imagine at the time of this writing, in the years ahead there will be an increasing need for the leaders of the culture change movement to migrate out of the “gerosphere” and into the wider cultural arena. The culture change movement should begin preparing now for a new and vastly expanded role on the national stage. As the postwar generation of “baby boomers” begins to leave adulthood, there will be a sharp rise in the demand for cultural guides who can help people understand and appreciate this new phase of life.