Reframing Aging


May 1, 2018 by Jean

Aging SymposiumLast week, I attended a Symposium on Aging put on by the interdisciplinary Aging Initiative at the University of Southern Maine in Portland.The all-day symposium included a plenary session, breakout sessions on a variety of topics, opportunities for networking, and a performance of Elizabeth Peavey’s one-woman show, “My Mother’s Clothes Are Not My Mother.” The symposium was well worth the effort to be out of the house before 7:00 a.m. and at the USM campus in Portland for the 8:00 a.m. start.

Although I took away something of value from every part of the day, I found a presentation by Julie Sweetland especially enlightening. Sweetland is a sociolinguist at FrameWorks Institute, a nonprofit organization that focuses on helping other nonprofit organizations communicate their messages more effectively. FrameWorks Institute does this by studying the frames we use to understand social problems and providing suggestions about how to shift those frames. If you are not a linguist, you may be wondering what a “frame” is. Think of a frame as a story we tell to make sense of some event or issue.

Since this was a symposium on aging, Sweetland’s presentation focused on how Americans frame aging. After presenting research findings about the stories we tell about aging and the negative images of aging that they reinforce, she provided research-based suggestions about how to shift those frames. Here is a chart from FrameWorks Institute’s website that summarizes those suggestions:


One of the key themes of Sweetland’s presentation was the need to shift from discussions of aging that frame it as a problem of people who are distinctly different from normal adults (a discourse that defines elders as “other”) to discussions that emphasize continuity and use the language of “we” and “us.” (You can see this shift in many of the examples above.) I hope to explore what this means for my own thinking about aging and ageism in a coming post.

15 thoughts on “Reframing Aging

  1. Fascinating and timely as I have been thinking about aging and how I frame it and how others and society frame it.

  2. Rusty Roessler says:

    Well although that does sound like an interesting event, I bet we has a better time slamming a few brews at The Spar Tree in Grannet Falls. Perhaps not quite so intellectual but I bet we laughed a bit more! Just so you know how some of the rest of us live. I hope this made you smile.

    • Jean says:

      LOL, Rusty, I’m afraid I’ve never been much of a slamming brews type of person. When my mother was alive, she sometimes reported running into old school friends of mine who still lived in Attleboro. When they asked her what I was up to and she told them I was a college professor, she claimed they would reply, “That figures.” 😉

  3. Jean R. says:

    The only time aging and the way it is framed bothers me is when you see those age charts with the boxes you’re supposed to check and the last one is “65 and over.” There’s a lot of difference between 65 and 85!

    I glad you enjoyed the Symposium. It’s amazing how this topic seems to be getting so much attention lately. I suppose it’s the Baby Boomers driving the conversation just like they’ve been doing with services and products since they they were born.

    • Jean says:

      Jean, I’m sure you’re right that the size of the baby boomer generation has been focusing new attention on aging. I’m hoping that conversation will bring some benefits to us all.

  4. Diana Studer says:

    Our suburb is known as the newly wed and nearly dead.
    We include 2 primary schools, a large high school and a technical college ;~)

    • Jean says:

      Diana, A friend of mine lives near a major street that has schools of every level, from elementary school through college, several churches, a retirement housing complex, and a cemetery. The joke there is that you can live your entire life on Stevens Ave.

  5. DonnaJurene says:

    Thank you for this post. I am passionate about framing aging and attendant issues in a positive way. For 6 years I facilitated a group for women over 60 and at our very first gathering we listed the negative words we hear (and believe) about aging as well as the positive. The negative list was three times as long. We re-did it a year after meeting together monthly and the positive list was longer! I felt good about doing some consciousness raising and helping us all reframe our experience in a more positive light. My sadness and ire is aroused when I hear older people denigrate and stereotype themselves. Is it a “I’ll beat you to your judgment by saying out loud what I think you are thinking”? Or is it how some people really feel about themselves because they’ve been taught by our culture to do so? Either way, I work hard to change that mindset, but I suppose some are sick of my constantly pointing out that we don’t have to be what society and our culture has labeled us. Anyway, thanks!

    • Jean says:

      DonnaJurene, Thanks for this comment. I, too, have made it a mission to try to change the mindset about aging. I found thinking about it in terms of framing to be really helpful in trying to understand why the negative stories we tell about aging are so persistent, including among older people. The work you have done with your group is important; the research shows that those with more positive understandings of aging live longer and have better quality of life.

  6. Sue McPhee says:

    This is fantastic! I am interested.

  7. Hi Jean! Just discovered your blog because I, too, am fascinating about ways to age in a positive way. I’m not quite yet retired…but I am aging and want to make the absolute most of it in the years to come. That’s why I also write about it as much as I can and spread the word that there are far more opportunities available as we age than I ever knew before. I’ve never heard of Sweetland before but appreciate her perspective on the need to reframe the experience. Thank you for sharing! ~Kathy

    • Jean says:

      Kathy, Welcome to my blog. You discovered it at a good time, because after more than two months of silence, I’m ready to get it moving again. I have so many things I want to write about, including some books about positive aspects of aging that I have read recently; I just need to reorganize my life a bit to make room for that writing. I’m looking forward to your comments as I share my experiences and ideas.

  8. Jean R. says:

    I just got a notice about your temporary post, but when I clicked on it it was gone. Very temporary. LOL

    • Jean says:

      Jean, That was me trying to get a new version of my favorite blogging software set up on my new computer. Don’t give up on me; I’m working on a new post and hope to have it up tomorrow.

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I am Jean Potuchek, a professional sociologist who has just stepped into the next phase of my life, retirement, after more than thirty years of college teaching. This blog is about my experience of that new phase of life.

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