I came to understand that these people, rich in experience and abilities, were being viewed through a lens of ageism that rendered their individual talents and achievements invisible. Few roles existed that used the experience and skills acquired over a lifetime. In our society, older adults are routinely dismissed as impaired, slow, or demented unless they can prove otherwise.
A story a few years ago in The New York Times on the invisibility and marginalization of older adults concluded that “such indignities seem to happen to almost everyone with gray hair or a few wrinkles, and at every sort of place. Store clerks, bank tellers, government workers, pharmacists, hairdressers, nurses, receptionists, and doctors alike ignore the older person and pay attention exclusively to the younger companion, regardless of who is the actual customer or patient.”
There is a growing body of impressive research showing that our attitudes toward aging affect our health, our resilience in the face of adversity, and our very survival. Becca Levy at Yale, a pioneer and leading researcher in this area, conducted a study that followed several hundred adults (50 years and older) for more than 20 years. She and her colleagues found that older adults who held more positive age stereotypes lived 7.5 years longer than their peers who held negative age-related stereotypes.
Ursula Staudinger, director of the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center at the Mailman School of Public Health, has conducted groundbreaking research on the positive plasticity of aging. Her work shows that biology, behavior, and culture constantly interact to shape the development of our lives into the oldest ages. This work confirms the importance of physical environments and social institutions as well as individual attitudes towards aging across the life span.
Unfortunately, negative stereotypes are much more common than positive images; indeed, according to some researchers, ageism is more pervasive in our society than negative stereotypes based on gender, race, or sexual orientation. Our negative attitudes towards aging blind us to the fact that millions of people in their '60s, '70s, '80s, and beyond are robust, active, functional, experienced, capable and talented—and that they want to remain engaged and contributing. However, we have not yet created the social structures, roles, and institutions to capitalize on our success in adding years to life by also adding life to years.
In the early 1990s, I partnered with Marc Freedman, now CEO and founder of Encore.org, to create a new, high-impact, social model for senior volunteering. The program became the Experience Corps.
The program is now operating in 23 cities and several countries. Its lessons contain clues to help us challenge the assumptions we make about the role of older adults, and to stimulate innovation in envisioning this new stage of life.