The Future of Aging? Here's What 3 Influencers in Aging Say
At The Longevity Project's Century Summit, they voiced optimism and shared concerns
I'm a little more hopeful about the future of aging in America than I was two days ago.
That's partly because of what I heard from three 2021 Next Avenue Influencers in Aging at the Influencers in Aging panel I moderated during The Longevity Project's Century Summit Tuesday, Dec. 7 — Pauline Boss, Guadalupe Hirt and Dr. Justin Golub. (I'll share highlights below; you can watch the entire panel by navigating to Tuesday, Dec. 7 on the Century Summit site's agenda and clicking "View Recording.")
"Your elders have stories — not just of trauma and stress that they've overcome but even more important, they have stories of how they coped and how resilient they were and how they adapted."
It's also partly because of two stories in The New York Times on Wednesday, Dec. 8.
"The Key to Marketing to Older People? Don't Say 'Old,'" described "the seismic shift" in the ways brands like Nike and Depends are speaking to prospective customers over 55 without insulting them and by reflecting the realities of aging. Said Susan Golden, director of Stanford University's Distinguished Careers Institute for midlife professionals: "The idea is to market not to a name and not to an age, but to the stage of life or 'vibrancy.'"
The Times article "Group Backed by Top Companies Moves to Combat A.I. Bias in Hiring" noted that The Data & Trust Alliance had signed up big employers including Walmart, Mastercard and CVS Health to create safeguards so human resources' artificial intelligence algorithms would no longer discriminate against certain job applicants, including older ones.
Now, to highlights from the Century Summit panel featuring three of our new Influencers in Aging — Pauline Boss (professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota and author of the forthcoming book on grief and caregiving, "The Myth of Closure"), Guadalupe Hirt (co-founder of SecondActWomen, helping midlife women start businesses and pursue career opportunities) and Dr. Justin Golub (an associate professor of otolaryingology head and neck surgery at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York City with expertise in age-related hearing loss):
2021 Influencer in Aging Pauline Boss
Richard Eisenberg: Next Avenue asked you 'If you could change one thing about aging in America, what would it be?' You answered: 'It would be to lessen the isolation of the aged.' Why did you say that and how do you think that could happen?
Pauline Boss: I'm eighty-seven, so I'm the elder on this panel. Everyone is texting. Do they not realize [during the pandemic] older people… would like a telephone call or for you to visit them when you can, when COVID allows? Because your elders have stories — not just of trauma and stress that they've overcome but even more important, they have stories of how they coped and how resilient they were and how they adapted.
I lived through World War Two and it was four years of great, great tension and anxiety, sadness and worry. We didn't know we would come out of that as we did and there were many deaths and many losses and wounded loved ones.
We know we can get over it; that we can come back. But younger people don't. So, the stories of elders — visit them, record them, listen to their stories of both resilience and experience, because we need them now.
We also asked you how the COVID-19 pandemic changed your perspective on aging, and you said that although the pandemic has taken away nearly two years from you — from us — you've found ways to value each day despite the restricted freedoms. Can you talk about how you're valuing each day and how the rest of us might do that?
I'm a person who likes to be in charge, but COVID taught me that I'm not in charge all the time. So, I remembered that I needed to find something that I could control in my inner life — for example yoga, meditation or prayer. Listening to music. Some people were baking bread.
I found that writing was my solace and it made me feel that I had some control in my life even though I was not allowed to leave where I lived.
2021 Influencer in Aging Guadalupe Hirt
Richard Eisenberg: One of the themes for Next Avenue's 2021 Influencers in Aging — and one of the reasons you and Barbara Brooks are on our list — is Finding Work and Purpose, something that's been so important during the pandemic. Can you talk a little bit about how and why people in midlife can find work and purpose?
Guadalupe Hirt: At forty- and fifty-plus, we are in a new stage of life. Take stock of what you've acquired to this point. You need to own the business acumen, the professional experience, the learned insights, the network connections — the whole value of what you bring to the table because of your age.
Then, it's understanding the generational characteristics that are innate in our generation. There's an opportunity for those of us forty- and fifty-plus to own the soft skills that came with our growing up. Some of us overlook those skills. I grew up on dial-up — the whole idea of being patient and waiting for it to connect — and patience is a superimportant soft skill in today's work environment.
"Own the fact that this is your time to do you on your terms and stop checking someone else's box."
As for finding your purpose, let your curiosity guide where you want to go next. But really own the fact that this is your time to do you on your terms and stop checking someone else's box.
You like to call life from age forty-five to sixty-five what the gerontologist Barbara Waxman terms 'middlescence.' Can you talk about that?
In adolescence, there's amazing growth. That happens in middlesence; it's the same thing; I think we're almost coming into ourselves a little bit more: 'I've lived life for everybody else, I've cared for my kids, I've paid my dues in the work environment, I've done everything else people wanted me to do, now it's my turn.'
It's this idea of: What makes my heart sing? What fills my cup? And I think it's a beautiful opportunity because now you've got this wealth of knowledge, the experience to build upon to pursue where you want to go next in your life.
There's no limits; only the ones you set on yourself.
Barbara Waxman says middlescence is created by longevity patterns of the twenty-first century. At SecondActWomen, we say it's also marked by an increased desire to find greater meaning in one's life. All of a sudden you start to welcome you as you are right now.
Another phrase you often mention is 'gender ageism.' What is it and why is it a problem?
I've been talking about this beautiful life stage; unfortunately, the dark side is society hasn't caught up with the fact that aging is changing, it's shifting. We're living longer, we're more active. We're more engaged in society. Unfortunately, corporate America, investment communities, sometimes our own selves, we don't see beyond those generationally passed down, unchecked biases that have put us in a corner saying 'Sorry, you're now forty-, fifty- or sixty-plus, you're past your prime.'
Ageism cuts both genders, but for women it's at disproportionate rates; COVID brought that to light one hundred percent, showing women over fifty were being unemployed at the greatest rates ever seen.
Women — and men — over fifty are not being hired back at the pace of our younger counterparts. Age bias is affecting how we transition into our later stages and unfortunately, that's putting a lot of us on the periphery when in fact, corporate America should be welcoming us in and recognizing that every generation has something valuable to add.
You'd been an entrepreneur for twenty-four years and had a hard time getting a corporate job. Tell us about what that was like.
You sit there and you're like: OK, I've acquired twenty-some odd years of professional experience, I've started four companies, I've been an associate producer on a short-subject documentary film. I've done all of these amazing things and yet I got the Dear Jeanette letters — instead of the Dear John letters — too much experience, not a culture fit, we're going in a different direction. All basically cues for either a) you're too expensive or b) you're not the age fit. And so that put us [at SecondActWomen] in a position to decide we have to do something about it because other women in our age group were experiencing the same thing.
Ageism unfortunately is alive and well and affecting many people around the world. Only eight percent of employers include age in their diversity initiatives; that's a far cry from where we should be.
Let's finish on an 'up' note: You think that people in their forties, fifties and sixties have some advantages as entrepreneurs over people who are younger. What are they?
Every generation has its own advantages. We have a slew of them, like experience and perspective. You've probably problem-solved yourself through a litany of experiences; your knowledge has turned into wisdom. So, the world is your oyster when you can bring that perspective to start your own company.
Secondly, it's the bank of contacts you have. Odds are, you've had years to cultivate relationships that now can serve you as you start your entrepreneurial career.
And the self-reckoning mindset: the fact that you are starting something because you want to, not because someone else tells you to do it.
MIT did a study of the best age to start a company and they found forty-five is the sweet spot for the most successful companies. It goes to show you age is not detriment to starting up at all. It's a bonus booster.
2021 Influencer in Aging: Dr. Justin Golub
Richard Eisenberg: You told Next Avenue that traditionally, health care was mostly focused on preserving life and living longer, but that you've seen a shift, particularly in older adults, to health care for improving quality of life. Why?
Dr. Justin Golub: As people live into their eighties, nineties, one-hundreds, I think the focus really needs to be on enjoying life and not just being alive. And hearing is a big part of enjoying life. It helps us communicate, enjoy music and learn. And that's guaranteed to be lost to a degree as you reach one hundred. That's what I'm focused on.
You've been particularly vocal about ageism in the context of hearing loss. What have you seen?
This is a newer interest of mine. I think that ageism is rampant in a lot of health care and particularly in treating hearing loss; a child and an older adult are treated completely differently. When a child goes to a pediatrician for hearing loss treatment, it's not ignored. In contrast, someone eighty goes in and has their hearing tested and it shows hearing loss, as it does eighty percent of the time, it's extremely likely they won't do anything for it. It screams inequity to me.
"In older-age people with hearing loss, people shrug and say: 'That's life; that's just the way it is.'"
Why are we failing to treat age-related hearing loss? After all, it's associated with depression, cognitive decline, falls and hospitalizations.
Lots of people don't recognize those connections. I think it's well known that if a child has hearing loss, they're not going to learn, they're not going to get A's. But in older-age people with hearing loss, people shrug and say: 'That's life; that's just the way it is.'
And access to hearing health technology is complicated and expensive. I hope that will change.
It looks like change may be in the air, with the law Congress passed in 2017 — the Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act. What will this law do and what do you think of it?
It matters because the most common way for treating age-related hearing loss is hearing aids, and they're complicated to get. You have to go to a doctor who sends you to an audiologist and then you have to go to an ENT to get medically cleared and then you have to go back to the audiologist who orders hearing aids and gets you fit. And they're very expensive. But that's the best thing to do if you have the time, patience and money. Not everybody has the time or money to do that.
It just needs to be easier and cheaper to get hearing aids.
It would be nice if hearing aids were sold over the counter at the drugstore, just like reading glasses. That is going to happen because of the 2017 Over the Counter Hearing Aid Act. It requires the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] to create a new category of device called OTC hearing aids for mild- to moderate hearing loss. It's been delayed because of COVID; I anticipate in the next year or so, you'll be able to go to Walgreens or CVS or Rite Aid and get this several-hundred-dollar device made by a consumer electronics company like Apple and Samsung and program these things with your phone.
Will people be able to get these types of hearing aids to work?
A lot of people will have the know-how, but not everybody will. Ideally, audiologists will be able to get reimbursed for their time and service to help you program these hearing aids; they don't these days.
How can we as a society change the cultural, political and economic barriers to treating age-related hearing loss?
Making hearing aids cheaper is just one solution; in the U.K., prices are low but the rate of use is just as low as here. We need to remove the stigma [of age-related hearing loss]. We need Medicare to cover prescription hearing aids and cover audiologist services.