The 65+ population in the U.S. is poised to grow to over 70 million from 40 million over the next several decades, while life-threatening diseases are set to double in cases over the same period. The aging of America is accelerating, heightening the need for expanded societal support of our senior citizen population.
For many senior citizens, aging is like swimming upstream against the current in today's forever young society. We live in a youth-obsessed nation where aging is out; young is in. Young celebrities like Kim Kardashian are revered while the elderly are on the outside looking in. People spend billions of dollars on anti-aging creams and surgical procedures to eliminate the worn-look of wrinkles rather than choosing to view wrinkled faces as reflections of life's experiences that took years to create.
What happened to the days when families and communities honored and cared for older people? In some cultures, senior citizens are not cast aside. In China, young people are expected to defer to older people, let them speak first, sit down only after they are seated and not contradict them. In some African communities, it is entrenched in the culture that older citizens command great respect. But as China and other senior-friendly societies become modernized, cultural norms-- including honoring elders-- wither away.
Many older people are ashamed and/or embarrassed to display some of the marks of aging in a forever young society that too frequently labels old people as frail and useless. Wrinkles are ugly, wheelchairs represent helplessness, and hearing aids reflect weakness.
Some older people have deserted modern society while other fight to stay relevant with anti-aging products and current fashion. There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to appear young if it makes you feel good, raises your confidence and promotes a healthier lifestyle. The problems with forever young attitudes are not individual attempts to maintain youthful appearance but rather the societal messaging that staying young is superior to growing old. There is an unspoken belief in American society: that young is beautiful and old is ugly.
On a positive note, there is a movement among some baby boomers to live a "third act" in life in their early senior years (60-80 years old). These seniors are determined to avoid God's waiting room and choose instead to live meaningful lives filled with activities, post-retirement employment and community service. Hopefully, this trend spreads among the senior segment of our population.
It's not senior citizens that are old; attitude towards senior citizens are old. Changing this begins with changing the image of older people. In marketing terms, we need to change the brand. For the past century, senior citizens have been branded as old, frail, useless and helpless among other derogatory adjectives. Our goal is to brand older as dynamic individuals who are full of life, passion and pride.
There have been some positive steps in changing societal attitudes such as the portrayal of gray hair as powerful and beautiful in advertising. This has shifted the perception towards aging ever so slightly. Fundamental changes in societal attitudes towards aging need to be made in order to cope with the vulnerabilities of an increasingly aging society.