April 12, 2015

What We Believe

Kudos to the Huffington Post for running an article about the new report from the FrameWorks Institute, “Gauging Aging: Mapping the Gaps Between Expert and Public Understandings of Aging in America.” And shame on the NY Times, the  Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the other major newspapers in America for ignoring it. That’s not entirely surprising since the report is all about the disconnect between public perception and reality, and the media are to a large extent responsible for shaping popular understanding.

The new study does not report the results of an opinion poll. It is not based on trendy focus group analysis. It seeks to understand what both geriatric experts and the lay public believe about aging and the “assumptions and thought processes” that underlie their opinions. The authors, supported by funding from AARP and a variety of foundations including the John A Hartford Foundation and the Retirement Research Foundation, use a “cultural-cognitive approach” to their work. That means they probe, they explore, they question. They do not rely on “big data.”

So what did they find? They learned a great deal about the gaps between the scientific understanding of aging (by which I mean physiologic, medical, psychological, and sociologic) and the public’s view. They learned so much that I will just touch on some of the highlights here.

Attitudes toward aging: the experts see aging as presenting challenges, but also an opportunity for growth and the possibility of continued contributions to society. The public sees aging as the enemy, to be combatted rather than embraced or supported. In particular, aging is thought to bring with it decay and disability; in fact, older people are very heterogeneous.

Root cause of aging: Americans tend to believe that what happens to them is entirely within their control. If they eat right, exercise, and lead a virtuous life, they can avoid the aging process entirely. The truth is more nuanced, with both genetic and external factors playing a significant role. In a similar vein, the public tends to believe that if older people do become disabled or demented and cannot take care of themselves, then their family rather than the government has an obligation towards them.

What we need in order to age well: The experts see a need to create structures to facilitate older engagement—whether opportunities for part time work, better transportation, or more volunteer positions. A related theme is the need, recognized by experts, for new public policy initiatives to modify today’s reality. The public, by contrast, takes the status quo for granted and assumes it’s up to older people to avail themselves of existing options.

There’s more. Maybe I will write more about this subject next week. Better yet, just read the study. And I look forward to future work from the FrameWorks Institute addressing how to change popular perceptions. Maybe they will shed some light on how to modify the public view of climate change and evolution, too.

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