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Draining the Swamp of Ageism

Swamps often get a bad rap (think politics). But they’re also a good metaphor to explain how easy it can be to get bogged down in dangerous habits.

When it comes to communicating about aging, the FrameWorks Institute uses a swamp to explain the unproductive ways our nation talks about growing older.

FrameWorks has been working with NCOA and seven other national aging organizations to reframe the story of aging. Step one is to avoid getting stuck in the swamp of ageist thinking. Here are some spots to avoid.

Us vs. Them

Too often, we talk about older adults as a different group of people—separate from ourselves. In reality, we’re all aging, and we all will face similar issues and challenges as we grow older.

And regardless of age, most of us want the same things—good health, economic security, and the ability to live independently. So, when we talk about what older adults want and need, it’s more productive to frame it as a collective need for everyone in our society.

Here’s an example. Whether you’re advocating for a teen center or a senior center, the values can ring true for all generations. Take a look at how the values at the Pro Deo Youth Center mirror the values of the Duxbury Senior Center and many other senior centers:

We believe that there should be a safe, fun, empowering environment for teens to grow and develop, and that the basic needs of teens need to be met if we expect everyone to function in the community in a healthy manner.

Our seniors will have meaningful opportunities to enjoy life, interact with the community and preserve their mental and physical well-being.

Ideal vs. Perceived “Real”

We’ve all seen the ads. The “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” ads that depict getting older as an inevitable and irrevocable downfall marked by physical deterioration, decline in mental capacity, and dependence.

But professionals who work with older adults know this is not the full story. Yes, older adults face challenges—just like people of all ages. But older adults also have a wealth of knowledge and wisdom to contribute to society, and they can and want to stay active and self-sufficient.

When trying to explain what older adults need and to gain support for public programs, it can be tempting to play the fear or sympathy card.

But what if we flipped the script? What if we appealed to people’s sense of justice instead?

We all deserve to maintain our health, security, and independence. That means we have a collective responsibility to work together to ensure that everyone—especially those who are struggling—have access to needed services and supports to make this a reality.


It’s also easy to believe that the problems of an aging society are just too huge to solve. Some say that Social Security, for example, is doomed because there simply aren’t enough workers to support the growing number of beneficiaries.

But this fatalistic way of communicating stops most listeners in their tracks. When a problem seems too overwhelming, people shut down.

What works better, according to FrameWorks, is to focus on why the problem exists—and then outline potential solutions. Where does the process break down and what are achievable, incremental steps we can take to fix it?

A Well-Framed Narrative

To build understanding about the real story of aging, shift people’s perspective, and generate support for our solutions, we need to change the narrative. FrameWorks offers this formula for an effective story:

  1. Why does this matter? Start by talking about a shared value people hold. In its research, FrameWorks found that the values of Ingenuity (innovative solutions) and Justice (doing what is fair) worked best.
  2. How does this work? If something is not working, why not? Use metaphors and examples to explain the problem and why it needs to change.
  3. What can we do about it? End by providing solutions. Show what will work and how.

Reframing aging is not something any of us can accomplish alone or quickly. But together, we can begin to sidestep the alligators in the swamp—and tell our story in a way that more people will listen.

Find more tips in FrameWork’s Reframing Aging toolkit.

What do you think about these ideas? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Jean Van Ryzin

About Jean Van Ryzin

Jean Van Ryzin is Senior Director of Communications for NCOA. She oversees NCOA's brand and external communications, including website, social media, digital and email marketing, and media relations.