Do We Need A New Spin On Getting Old?

The International Council on Active Aging issued a press release this week declaring that "It's time to rebrand aging from 'burden' to 'opportunity.'" CEO Colin Milner goes on to say "The media has contributed to negative perceptions of aging by frequently showing scenarios such as 'granny in the rocking chair' and 'I've fallen and I can't get up -- but not the other side of the picture.'"

So here's my first question: Who branded aging as a "burden" in the first place? Did this concept sneak out of Leo Burnett while we all had our eyes focused on the eternally youthful Tony the Tiger? Was it the brainchild of a bunch of copywriters on Madison Avenue desperately needing a tagline after weeks of launching paper airplanes into the circular file? Or is it the fault of crusty city editors barking at their hapless reporters to "pound the pavement and get me one of those 'granny in the rocking chair' thumb suckers!"

I know it's not the American Association of Retired Persons. Our household has been getting its publications for a while now (multiple copies, in fact; no wonder the circ figures are astronomical) and it's always featuring vibrant creatures who jog a few miles at dawn, eat unadulterated fruit salad for lunch, and wear their wisdom the way Aunt Millie used to wear her pearls in the evening. Take the "sexy sassy rebirth of Valerie Bertinelli" for starters.

But even if we agree that aging needs to be "rebranded," how exactly do we go about doing this? If I may say one thing about this Baby Boomer generation of ours, it is the most perverse, argumentative -- dare I say it ... contumacious -- group of unherdable cats ever to occupy a demographical cohort. In short, nobody's going to tell us to do nuttin'.

That said, when I look around me, there are a whole lot of people doing a whole lot of things to stay young in body, mind and spirit.

One of my best friends, who recently "mostly" retired as an accomplished practicing attorney, tells me that his new career, at age 70, is to latch on with a team capable of winning the 70-plus basketball competition at the National Senior Games. He's been playing in the same serious pickup game in New York City for 40 years (Phil Jackson used to drop in), and is also on the roster of two softball teams in season, but that isn't stopping him from seriously stepping up his aerobic and resistance training after reading the book Younger Next Year.

And at a gathering last night I listened to three women in their 50s and 60s talk about all the incredible, college-level classes their parents were attending in their respective retirement communities.

One of the sharpest wits I know, in fact, is 94 years old. Despite painful arthritis, she loves to walk a trail that she was doing maintenance work on until just a few years ago. And even though she needs a magnifying glass to read the newspaper, you'd feel woefully uniformed if she was the type to call attention to her knowledge of current events (but she's not).

I understand the motives of the ICAA, which is based in Vancouver, B.C., and says its membership consists of more than 8,200 organizations that manage, own or operate 40,000-plus locations in 37 countries. Its very mission is to connect "like-minded professionals who share the goals of changing society's perceptions of aging and improving the quality of life for aging Baby Boomers and older adults within the seven dimensions of wellness (emotional, vocational, physical, spiritual, intellectual, social, environmental)."

I'm all for that. Language is powerful, and it's easy to slip into negative stereotypes. But there's nothing quite as convincing as creaky joints, winded lungs and easily fatigued muscles to convince us that we are, indeed, getting old.

And you can't "brand" everything. To change the world, sometimes you just need to go about your business and let other people write the stories they see. In the end, it has nothing to do with slogans, or some assignment editor's cockamamie notions of a trend. Given our genetics and fortune in avoiding injuries and illness, aging is, in fact, a story we each write for ourselves.

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5 comments about "Do We Need A New Spin On Getting Old? ".
  1. Barbara Sadek from Campbell Soup Co , December 22, 2010 at 9:14 a.m.

    One request to the ICAA and all writers everywhere: Please stop prefacing the phrase Baby Boomers with the frustratingly ubiquitous adjective "aging." Last time I checked, everyone -- even the Millennials -- were aging at the same rate of one year for every 365 passing days. We'll never get past these granny stereotypes if the world keeps hanging the "aging" label around our necks like a millstone.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , December 22, 2010 at 9:32 a.m.

    This is a very inspiring column and a great holiday gift to take into the new year. Thank you.

  3. Anne Peterson from Idaho Public Televsion , December 22, 2010 at 5:59 p.m.

    A note from the "silent generation:" My generation is not slumping in the rocking chair either or going quietly into some standard netherworld of aging either. So, raise the age level and dive in to sort out how many different kinds of folk there are in the over-65 age bucket.

  4. Leslie Nolen from The Radial Group , December 25, 2010 at 7:10 p.m.

    Just remember - as always: it's the collective consumer experience that ultimately defines the boundaries of business opportunities and brands.

    And the plural of anecdote (the 94-y/o woman who's up on current events, the Senior Olympics guy) is NOT data.

    If the real-world experience for the vast majority of consumers is that aging means trading down to a lower-paying job when they'd REALLY rather truly retire, a social life planned around visits to various medical offices, markedly and progressively less physical and eventually cognitive ability to smartly handle the matters of everyday life...then THAT's what the boundaries are, no matter how much we in the industry wish otherwise.

    I see marketers salivate at the sheer size of this segment while conveniently forgetting that all those older adults we hear about who're taking college classes, hiking the Andes and so forth are in the tail of the distribution - not the middle. (As is their household income..ahem.)

    Leslie Nolen
    The Radial Group
    The health and wellness
    business experts
    www.HealthWellnessTrendReport.com

  5. Richard Ambrosius from Phoenix Associates , December 31, 2010 at 5:43 p.m.

    What ICAA is really saying is that it is way past time to reframe our view of an aging population from one of burden to one of well being and opportunity.

    For the past 6 decades, businesses, ad agencies and "crusty editors" were myopic in their view of the marketplace. They view the America's youth as the only viable consumers and that myopia affected everything from television programming to commercials to employment opportunities.

    Incidentally, the Leo Burnett was one of the few in the ad world that did understand how to communicate with older minds. His McDonald's commercials were among the few that offered an ageless and purposeful view of the aging consumer.

    Frankly, ICAA is committed to doing what AdWeek and other media publications should be doing...but that requires a paradigm shift in an industry still infatuated with you as evidenced by the author's view of the members of the Baby Boom demographic. Clearly this article documented the need for rebranding, reframing and reconsidering the value to the mature consumer, which encompasses more than the Boom in spite of Madison Avenue's myopia.