Years ago, I attended a New York University course on health-care public relations. It was shortly after the time of the big Tylenol incident. Perhaps you remember the event. In 1982, seven people in the Chicago area died from cyanide poisoning as a result of tampered Tylenol Extra-Strength capsules. While parent company Johnson & Johnson had nothing to do with this criminal act, which occurred post-shipment, it took full responsibility to remedy the situation. Because its priority was to save the lives of its consumers before saving the life of its product, it 1) immediately recalled and eventually ceased production of all Tylenol capsules, 2) created new tamper-resistant caplets and packaging, 3) offered consumer discounts on Tylenol products, and 4) educated the medical community about its public-safety efforts in order to restore trust in the company. In public relations courses everywhere, the Johnson & Johnson response was hailed as the gold standard in crisis management: name the problem, tell the truth about it, and work quickly and diligently to solve it.
In some ways, the concept of aging has had major PR problems of its own for a very long time. It’s gotten a horrible reputation as a process of inevitable and irrevocable decline. Widespread ignorance about the physiology of aging has led to culturally accepted negative stereotypes that not only are false but engender fear. And with increased talk about “silver tsunamis” and endangered entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare, it’s accurate to say that the PR problem is now slouching toward the level of PR crisis.
There is nothing wrong with people getting older. The process is a natural part of life. Just as we don’t consider childhood, adolescence, and adulthood as lifespan aberrations that must be halted or corrected, neither should we feel the same way about elderhood. Each life stage has its problems and challenges, but it also has its benefits and rewards. That’s why it’s important to identify the huge PR predicament we face concerning aging. It is up to all of us to name the real social problem (ageism), tell the truth about it (it’s human-made and preventable), and work hard to solve it as soon as possible.
All of us have a stake in handling this problem, but none more so than the professionals who work in aging services –– businesses, educational institutions, government departments, and nonprofit organizations whose mission is to serve the needs and aspirations of older adults.
Ironically, many people in this field manage to contribute more to worsening the PR problem than to solving it. They do so unintentionally by continuing to define elders as a basically needy (in decline) population and emphasizing individual responsibility as the sole requirement for aging successfully. By not giving equal time and energy in the course of their work to raising awareness of older adults’ capacity to be economically and socially productive and of the social factors that limit this capacity, these professionals undercut their efforts to improve the lives of the people they serve.
When it comes to aging’s PR problem, we need to adopt our own gold standard of crisis-management response. We should 1) immediately challenge ageist views and work to remove them from public discourse, 2) replace those views with tamper-resistant perspectives of aging that are based on science rather than on fear, 3) offer meaningful opportunities for elders to engage with their community in more comprehensive ways, and 4) educate all generations about the challenges and benefits of the aging process at every stage of life.
Today, people have no reservations about taking Tylenol. Who knows? If we can lick our ageism-based PR problem, perhaps someday soon we might be able to say the same thing about growing older.
Arthur James says
Yes Jeanette ,
Your article once again spells the bitter and harsh truth of Aging . And if you require a solid and workable PR in the USA , what about us in India . We are in a pitiable state no doubt but there are many noble institutions here who have taken up to CSR work in the area of Ageism and Elderhood and a slow yet steady awareness is on the rise — too slow , but on the way .
” Old and grey and in the way ” will slowly read ” Old and grey and here to stay ” .
Your writings spur me on to think more , act more and do practically more and to make people think otherwise where AGE is to accepted with nobility and dignity , always .
AGING GRACEFULLY WITH AMAZING GRACE must be the watch words for 2016
Warm wishes for the NEW YEAR ,
Yours truly ,
Wahhab Baldwin says
In order to change the culture’s view of aging, there needs to be an appreciation of the gifts of aging, such as wisdom, greater maturity, generativity, generosity, and spiritual development. Other cultures have and do honor these qualities. Jared Diamond considers some reasons why our culture doesn’t in The World Until Yesterday. How can we support this shift?
The Greying Panther says
Now a resident in an assisted-living ‘institution’, I have been a sociologist; a graduate of City University of New York. I try to keep myself sane by authoring a personal/research blog. The key word here is “try”, because the ‘residence’ is so disorganized, so sickeningly-sweet-patronizing, I could retch.
Just releasing steam here at the moment. I’m looking forward to reading more about you.
La Femme Artiste says
@The Greying Panther- don’t give up!! I was just working at an assisted living non-profit. I find the descriptions you’ve offered here fit like a glove. Keep producing your research, be feisty about requiring a supportive community of equals.
Jeanette Leardi says
Hey, Greying Panther: Know that you’re not alone in the struggle to change perceptions about aging. I agree with La Femme Artiste. Keep doing what you’re doing. Whether you know it or not, you’re serving as a great role model for others who are also redefining themselves as they meet the challenges of aging in a system in which “One size fits all” is just another way of saying “One size fits none.” If we all keep asserting ourselves, one day, each of us will be honored for the valued individuals that we are!
Florence Klein says
Your insight into the various agencies, help companies and also non profits have not seen the clear prospective that you have in understanding the Ageism topic. They have not thought about PR. Now is the time to make changes…
Ken Dychtwald says
Excellent piece. Insightful, correct and timely. EXTREMELY well done. BRAVO.
Roger Anunsen says
” . . . perspectives of aging that are based on science rather than on fear . . . ”
FACT: The science is already here and with education, fear is on the run.
Knowledge really is power and with the pipelines of research flowing with what will surely be more exciting revelations, your writings, Bill’s tours and Ashton’s all-out assault on ageism will have even more hard facts with which to disrupt and then destroy any lingering myths of aging.
[email protected] says
Great ideas. Thank You, now how do we get professionals to implement them???
Thanks for your question! I’d say the best way to convince them is though a discussion that addresses their bottom line. Do they want to increase their presence in the community? Serve more older adults? Receive more funding and qualify for more grants? Continue to exist as a business, organization, or other entity? Then it’s in their best interest to treat older adults as assets not as charity recipients. Maybe that will work.
We always wish people “…..and many more” on their birthdays, why would we not wish the same for ourselves? Aging is a natural progression of life as well as a gift. We definitely need a good PR job so people don’t dread the future, thanks for your ideas.
Paul Verchinski says
Aging is a pejoritive. My wife hates it and so do most folks. We need a better moniker for these years like the Teen Years. My solution is to call these years – the Longevity Bonus Years.