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3 Ways to Change the Aging Conversation

During Senior Center Month in September, we’re highlighting outstanding centers that promote aging well for every person in their communities.

Last fall, I had the opportunity to attend a workshop at the Frameworks Institute centered on reframing the conversation around aging. Eight national aging-focused organizations, including NCOA, partnered to drive a more informed conversation about aging and its implications for our communities, and I was a part of it.

I immediately wanted to take what I had learned back to my center, as I realized that staff, patrons, and the community would benefit from the same information. I overheard conversations in the halls of the center such as “I’m too old for that,” and “you look great … for your age.”

But when I discuss what we do at the senior center, people are often surprised at what is offered and marvel at our active participants. I became aware of the cultural models of different people and practiced addressing them.

Here are three ways that I worked with my center to lay the groundwork for changing the aging conversation.

1. Train your staff

First, I began working with staff around the Reframing Aging research, and I emailed them the Frameworks Academy video series to view. Afterwards, we discussed how we can best communicate with each other, as well as with our patrons. If a patron would comment, “I am too old for that,” staff would ask why? This often led to thought-provoking conversations between staff and patrons who realized that perhaps that activity wasn’t of interest or they would consider it. Staff would reframe their thought, acknowledging how they have built experiences and gaining momentum for the next moment, opportunity, or challenge. It has been a culture change.

2. Educate your participants

Secondly, I conducted a Lunch and Learn entitled Reframed Aging for 50 participants. My presentation included misconceptions about age in the media, as well as from themselves. This lead to an engaging conversation with patrons embracing their ages and trying new things. Staff responded by adding an Adventure Series, which includes ziplining, archery, indoor sky diving, etc., in addition to our other program offerings. Our participants continue to build upon their experiences and push outside of their comfort zones.

3. Evaluate the public perception of your center

The third way to change the conversation is to evaluate how your senior center is perceived by the public. The best way to steer that conversation is through social media. Staff reviewed past postings on Facebook and Instagram, as well as on our websites. The challenge for centers is to attract baby boomers, and to do this we need to change our messaging. Baby boomers do not see themselves as “seniors.” Frameworks research states the recommendation to use “older person/people” rather than senior citizen, senior, or elder. We use the term senior citizens to define our funding and our service, and we use people, older adult, or people aged 55+ for the rest of our messaging.

Changing the conversation on aging within your senior centers is not an easy process, but it is completely worthwhile. When staff and patrons work together on a shared vision of building momentum, it creates a culture of “I can” rather than “I can’t.” Senior centers can be places where dreams become realized, people are valued, and experiences are built upon.

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About Tracey Colagrossi

Tracey Colagrossi is Director of the Department of Senior Services in Hanover Township, IL, a National Institute of Senior Centers (NISC) accredited senior center. Tracey is also the State Association Chair and Chair-Elect for NISC.