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.