In blogging about the politics of aging and the Poetics of Aging conference I’ve come to agree with other advocates that a major cultural paradigm shift is necessary to break our society’s obsession with youth, end ageism and reverse widespread declinist attitudes towards growing old.
How do we bring about such a cultural shift and change aging? I believe the key is to make growing old with dignity a civil right.
I was deeply moved this week to draw a parallel to the civil rights movement when I learned that Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, a civil rights hero who focused national attention on the violent resistance to equal rights in the 1960s, died at age 89 after living his last years in a Green House Project home in Birmingham, Ala.
The work of Rev. Shuttlesworth, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others in the 1960s paved the way for the 1964 Civil Rights Act AND the Social Security Act of 1965, which created Medicare, a major civil rights victory and social safety net for older adults.
It was humbling to know that someone who dedicated his life — and risked it! — to fight discrimination had the opportunity to live in one of the nation’s first Green House homes, where he was cherished as a person, and honored as a legend.
I am not a civil rights historian or expert but it is clear that focusing national attention on the injustice of segregation was key to advancing the equal rights movement.
Today, it is our most vulnerable populations — frail older adults and those with disabilities — who are the most disenfranchised from society.
We need to shine a bright light on this injustice.
More than one and half million older adults are taken from their homes and communities and institutionalized in nursing homes, many against their will, for the simple crime of frailty. As Dr. Bill says, “Our society operates a vast archipelago of old age institutions, more numerous than Starbucks coffee shops but kept out of sight, nearly invisible to the masses.”
They exist in our communities but they’re not a central part of them. They operate according to the priorities and regiments of the institution, not according to the needs and desires of the individuals living there or the workers who care for them. Those who live in them are dictated when to wake up, when to eat, when to bath and when to go to the bathroom. And when they die, their bodies are snuck out the back door and their beds are filled as quickly as possible.
There is a movement to de-institutionalize nursings and most of ChangingAging’s readers are part of it. It’s called the culture change movement and it’s been around for decades.
But I believe the culture change movement is at a crossroads. It has grown from a radical wing of the long term care industry to a marketing buzzword rapidly being co-opted by institutions that have no intention of changing the culture of their care.
Now is the time to broaden the movement and engage elders, their families, friends, loved ones and their entire communities, to take up this battle. The ultimate push for culture change must be driven by fierce consumer demand — not from the industry or even the advocates.
To bring about a paradigm shift and change society you need a simple, powerful message with universal appeal. In this battle we are all in it together — each and every one of us grows older each and every day. It is up to us to demand what kind of life we live, no matter our age.