When I first heard about AARP’s new “Disrupt Aging Collection” of images, launched in September in collaboration with Getty Images, I thought, “Yes!”
The more than 1,400 images — available for use by media outlets, advertisers and others — aim to challenge stereotypes and “paint a more accurate portrait of how people age in today’s society.”
“By telling real life stories of adults aged 50 to 100 through visuals depicting everyday experiences, The Disrupt Aging Collection illustrates the fact that older adults live increasingly full lives, while simultaneously combating ageist biases and assumptions,” Rebecca Swift, Ph.D., Getty Images’ global head of creative insights, said in a press release announcing the initiative.
That’s a great goal and a needed undertaking.
Anyone who has seen clips of Jack Palance doing one-armed push-ups at the 1992 Oscars, when the late actor was 73, or Annie Lennox singing “I Put a Spell on You” at the 2015 Emmy Awards when she was 60 (at about the 2:50 mark at the link) knows that vitality, talent and strength don’t necessarily wane with age. Their performances stood out for viewers, for better or worse, because they bucked expectations. And we all can think of examples of vibrant older adults of various ages in our personal lives, too.
The new campaign certainly fits nicely with LeadingAge’s important vision to “permanently change the image of aging in our society,” which the organization’s president and CEO, Katie Smith Sloan, announced at the group’s 2016 annual meeting.
But it was another organization’s 2016 annual meeting that my mind went to when thinking about this new AARP / Getty Images effort.
Mark Parkinson, a former governor of Kansas, was celebrating his sixth anniversary as president and CEO of the American Health Care Association / National Center for Assisted Living in 2016.
“I think some people were excited back when I was announced, not so much because I was a former governor, but because Stacy and I were one of you,” he told those attending the general session of the group’s annual meeting at the time. “Stacy and I really did build and own and operate and work every single day in our assisted living facilities and skilled nursing facilities.”
With six years under his belt at the helm of AHCA / NCAL, Parkinson said he now felt more comfortable admitting that “when we opened up our first assisted living facility, we had no idea what we were getting into. We really didn’t.”
He and his wife, Stacy, he explained, entered the assisted living industry in September 1996.
“We had kids that were 7, 4 and 1 when we opened up our first building. We both worked at the law firm that we had started 10 years earlier; we worked 50 or 60 hours a week,” he said. “I was also in the Kansas state senate, and we were involved in all sorts of community activities.
“We thought that we would be able to continue to do all of those things and that we would build this one — just one — assisted living facility, and it would kind of be off to the side,” he continued, adding that as they imagined, “We’d check on it every once in a while to make sure it was doing OK. It would be a hobby.”
That assumption was a mistake, of course, Parkinson told the crowd.
“I think back and wonder, ‘How could we have been so naïve as to think that an assisted living facility would run itself?’ ” he said. “I’m convinced it’s because we didn’t understand the type of people that live in our buildings. We believed the ads that some of you run. You know those ads that have active seniors?”
It was then that Parkinson showed images of older adults riding bicycles and golfing on large screens in the ballroom.
“You see what I’m talking about. This is who we thought would live in our building,” he said. “If you look closely at the guy on the bicycle, I’m pretty sure he’s younger than I am right now.” Parkinson was 59.
“And I love the guy coming off the golf course. ‘Yeah, hey, let’s have a cocktail,’ ” he joked. “Well, we learned very quickly that these people exist, but they don’t live in our buildings.”
The CEO was telling this story as a humorous part of a larger message about the industry and those who operate in it, but I still take something away from this story three years later.
And that is, yes, older adults can and should be portrayed as living “increasingly full lives,” as Getty Images put it. That is an accurate picture.
But it’s not a complete picture, and operators do a disservice to the industry, to potential residents and to current residents if they don’t convey the complete spectrum of aging and the reality of assisted living and assisted living residents in the images in their marketing materials. If operators don’t do that, then isn’t the industry guilty of perpetuating stereotypes of a different sort?
When operators honestly convey in their materials what the industry is and what it does, they celebrate residents exactly as they are and convey the industry’s noble task of serving their needs. And they help prospective residents understand what assisted living is, too.