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Yet more evidence that attitudes towards aging affect how minds and bodies function

Scientists are a cautious bunch, but the latest study, out yesterday from researchers from at Trinity College, Dublin, is unequivocal: “Attitudes to aging can have a direct effect on health.” (Not quite “Ageism makes you sick,” but close.) Research continues to illuminate the important implications of the mind-body connection for how we age. The Irish study found that olders with negative attitudes towards aging walked more slowly and had “worse cognitive abilities” than those with more positive attitudes, even after researchers accounted for medications, mood, life circumstances, and other health changes over the same two-year period. Attitudes also affected the interaction of different health conditions. Frailty correlates with cognitive impairment, but the brains of frail participants with positive attitudes towards aging worked as well as those of their non-frail peers.


The article concludes that “These latest findings have important implications for media, policymakers, practitioners and society more generally. Societal attitudes towards aging are predominantly negative. Everyone will grow older and if these attitudes persist they will continue to diminish quality of life.” No kidding. More grist for my ongoing argument that an anti-ageism campaign would be an important public health initiative. The World Health Organization thinks so too.

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A very short story about why we need a radical age movement

               “L.A. has to be the world capital of ageism. I noticed it the first time i visited L.A. after my first year of college. I was staying with a classmate and his family. On about the third day of the visit, we were sitting in the kitchen when an elderly woman I hadn’t seen before walked through without saying anything. My friend and his parents acted embarrassed but otherwise didn’t acknowledge the woman’s presence. I had to ask him later who it was.

      ‘Oh, that was Grandma,’ he said, like I’d reminded him of something he’d forgotten. ‘She’s supposed to stay in her room when we have company,’

       Best from Cali, where we hide our age and our aged.’ 


       Mike Bonifer, Chief Creative Officer, bigSTORY

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how do I know a pro-aging movement is underway?

Because I’m getting emails like the one that showed up this morning from Steven Frank, a career geriatric health care administrator. In 2013, when Frank was 62, he lost his wife and his business—difficult transitions that led him to question his trajectory, open a practice as a consultant/coach to people “seeking to inhabit their own lives,” and aspire to becoming such a person. “That process led me to the subject of ageism,” Frank wrote,  “the rewards of accentuating the positives of aging rather than repairing the worst, and to examine what constitutes a ‘Life Well Lived’—not coincidentally the name of my practice.  Just this evening, it also led me to you and ‘This Chair Rocks.’ It was like turning on a light switch, at once illuminating and electric.  I’m not a glum person by nature, but I was suffused with an energy, optimism and excitement that I haven’t experienced since my high school sweetheart introduced me to a much earlier epiphany. Love at first sight.  Inspirational, creative, energizing, personally meaningful…a WOW experience.  I just wanted to thank you and your colleagues in the field for opening a door to a brave new world.”

It’s going to take all of us to shape that new world. I’m delighted to have been introduced to one of them today.

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blurb from eminent historian Stephanie Coontz

Twenty years ago I screwed up my courage and sent a copy of my book, Cutting Loose: Why Women Who End Their Marriages Do So Well, to the author and historian Stephanie Coontz, one of my culture heroes. Six months later the phone rang.  It was Stephanie, asking if I’d like to join the nascent Council on Contemporary Familes, now the go-to resource for reliable research about American families as they really are. Here’s what she had to say about This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism:


“An eloquent and well-researched exposé of the prejudice that feeds age bias, and a passionate argument to mobilize against it. This must-read book is also a fun read — for every age!”

            — Stephanie Coontz, author, The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap

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Concerned about an onslaught of enfeebled old people? Don’t worry, robots will take care of them! American techno-optimism knows no bounds, and so-called “age-independence” technologies are proliferating like crazy. But in a profoundly ageist culture, the implications can be disturbing. Here’s a critique of the latest article to catch my eye, “As Aging Population Grows, So Do Robotic Health Aides,” which appeared in the New York Times on December 4, 2015. 

Let’s start with the hand-wringing opener [emphasis mine]: “The ranks of older and frail adults are growing rapidly in the developed world, raising alarms about how society is going to help them take care of themselves.” Frailty is indeed the biggest threat to an active old age, although only a subset of olders are at risk. It’s also easily detectable and the most remediable. Even very old people who are already frail see huge gains from modest interventions, like walking more or doing simple weight training exercises. 

Next up, the inevitable alarm about global wrinkling: “An aging population will place enormous burdens on the world’s health care system by 2050.” In fact, older people are not inevitable money pits for health dollars. People aren’t just living longer; they’re healthier and are disabled for fewer years of their lives than older people of decades ago. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, the share of US health care spending going toward nursing and retirement homes has declined since 2000 and been flat since 2006. The ten-year MacArthur Foundation Study of Aging in America concluded that once people reach sixty-five, their added years don’t have a major impact on Medicare costs. People over eighty actually cost less to care for at the end of life than people in their sixties and seventies. It’s high-tech interventions, not older patients, that make modern medicine so expensive. 

On to another bit of problematic language: “Despite a patchwork of research and some commercial products, the United States appears to be lagging Japan and Europe in developing solutions.” Solutions to what? Aging is a natural, lifelong process, not a problem to be solved. Longevity is a fundamental hallmark of human progress. 

Population aging—the prospect of many more of us living into our 80s and 90s— does mean that people will require more assistance of various kinds. Technology can indeed help us address some of these legitimate challenges. 

  • Problem: limited mobility. Solution: small autonomous drones that will carry out household tasks, like reaching under a table to grab an object, fetching something from the other room, and cleaning. This sounds nifty. Please, though, do not call mine a “Bibbidi Bobbidi Bot,” as University of Illinois robotocist Naira Hovakimyan has dubbed the prototypes to make them less intimidating. I can handle “drone.” Even people with severe Alzheimer’s have been shown to react aggressively to infantilizing language. 
  • Problem: “wandering.” Solution: smart pendants that track location. That makes sense.
  • Problem: tracking health status. Solution: “room and home sensors” that presumably verify that you’re up and around and have opened the fridge; devices with screens for video conferencing with health care providers. Those, too, make sense, and many more healthcare-related technologies are in the works.
  • Problem: driving. Solution: “Driver assistance [that] will turn cars into elder-care robots.” This is a great freakin’ idea. Google’s driverless cars are safer than human-operated vehicles, and Americans who can’t drive are hostage to lousy alternatives or homebound. 

These benefits are real, but they’re limited. Technology, as we should know by now, is no panacea for complex social problems. Looking for ways to profit from the fast-growing “silver market,” thousands of companies are pitching devices as a solution not only for mobility and wellness issues but to remediate loneliness and isolation. “In addition to smart-home sensors and mobile robots,” the article continues, “there are a variety of other efforts to add stationary robots to provide everything from coaching to communications to companionship.” 

Communications, absolutely. Skype, Facetime and other web-based technologies are terrific ways to help people of all ages stay connected. Coaching, why not? Lots of learning involves the kinds of drills and repetition that machines are made for. I can envision some kind of gym droid making me stretch and sweat and work on my balance. I’d name it and curse it and grow attached to it, and probably do the same for the drone carrying my shopping bag and the bot beating me at Boggle. 

But that’s not companionship. Facetime is not the same as being together. A robot is not the same as a friend. I’m willing to bet that even people with advanced dementia can tell the difference, and I’m not surprised by the response of a 91-year-old woman to “an Internet-connected tabletop robot with a round swiveling screen that portrays a friendly robotic face” called Jibo. “If Jibo were my last friend,” she said, “I would be very depressed.” Danger, Will Robinson, danger!

As advertised, all these assistive technologies will help people stay in their own homes longer. That’s a priority for many and a boon for the insurance industry, because “aging in place” is cheaper than institutionalization. But they are no remedy for the “epidemic levels” of loneliness that an executive at Brookdale Senior Living describes in the article. Just the opposite, in fact, because staying at home all too often means ending up alone. 

Sure, machines could be trained to do a great job. The presence of a sophisticated, infinitely patient robot designed to show pictures of your kids or play Scrabble or drive you to the movies might arguably be better than that of a human trained only to keep you safe, whose thoughts are likely on the faraway children her minimum wage supports. Those marvelous robots will inevitably serve the wealthiest consumers, however, widening the inequality gap and distracting us from the kinds of communitarian solutions that will help us all.

The fact that many people end up lonely and isolated is not inherent to growing old. It reflects some regrettable—and very American—priorities:

  • We don’t value caregiving, work largely performed by women who are unpaid or underpaid. 
  • We idealize self-reliance. This downplays life’s challenges, and shames us when, inevitably, we fall short. 
  • We value youth over age. Internalized ageism makes people reluctant to adopt technologies that might telegraph vulnerability. At the other end of the spectrum, technophiles embrace “anti-aging” biotechnologies in the hopes of transcending senescence and even mortality. The denial is collective as well. It’s why the US is so ill-prepared for a demographic transition that’s been on the horizon since the 1950s.

Neither the “problem” nor the “solution” is technological. It is social.

Humans are social animals, and we’re meant to live in community. Social connections give life meaning, and are key to a happy and healthy old age. Instead of focusing on devices that reduce the need for human contact, why not make the most of our human resources?We already have something really good at looking after humans: other humans. Millions of people are out of work and a caregiver crisis is growing more acute.

If we genuinely care about well-being in late life, we need to create opportunities for older people to come together with people of all ages, ways to get there, and meaningful activities to engage in, from the mundane to the metaphysical. Older members of society are uniquely qualified to be watchdogs, advocates, educators and futurists. Not to mention backwards-understanders; as Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard observed, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

Our drones can come along.

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To kick off 2016, here’s the last clip in my first YouTube series

Clip #10 – It’s time to end discimination on the basis of age.

It’s harder to unlearn than to learn, especially when it comes to values. The critical starting point is to acknowledge our own prejudices, and work toward making our own behavior and beliefs less ageist. The next step is harder: pointing out ageist behavior or attitudes in other people. Educating others, kindly and tactfully, sends that change outward like ripples across a pond. Silence sanctions prejudice. Change requires awareness.

Ridding ourselves of internalized ageism and raising awareness in the world around us are important tasks in their own right. Their value increases exponentially if it helps us see resistance to ageism as part of a broader cultural revolution.

Upending discrimination on the basis of age will require fundamental changes in the way society is structured. We have to come up with fairer and broader ways to assess productivity, devise more ways for older people to continue to contribute, support them in these endeavors, and decouple the value of a human being from success along any of these metrics. This social change demands that we join the struggle against racism, sexism, ableism, and homophobia as well. Likewise, activists for other social justice causes would do well to consider how ageism hampers their efforts, and to raise awareness and work against it.

Discrimination on the basis of age is as unacceptable as discrimination on the basis of any other aspect of ourselves that we cannot change. Imagine the postwar generation, their children, and their children finding common cause in a fact- rather than fear-based view of growing older, and mobilizing against the discrimination that makes aging in America so much more difficult than it should be. This is about the world we want those children, who may well live to be 100, to inherit. Let’s make it one in which people can find purpose and meaning at every stage of life.

Watch the video. If you like what you see, please subscribe. 



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End-of-year break

I’m going on vacation – and if that’s not enough of an excuse, I broke my wrist and can’t type – so no barricade-storming for two weeks or so. It’s been a terrific year – thanks for all the support – and 2016 is looking great. My book, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, will be out in the spring.


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Who me, try parkour?

When my proto-daughter, Alice Popejoy, took up parkour four years ago—”freerunning” up buildings, over walls, along branches, you get the idea—I thought it was a cool, wack, pastime for youngers. That changed when she sent me this short documentary. I don’t think I’ll be scaling water towers any time soon, but it suddenly occurred to me that I could be scrambling around a jungle gym with my grandchildren instead of watching staidly from the sidelines. There’s a little ageist language (“foreveryoung!”) but the overall message is provocative and inspiring.