get age smart with ruth finkelstein
Executive Director Brookdale Center on Aging, Hunter College
Q: Tell us about the work that you’ve been doing around inclusion, specifically around aging
The thing about inclusion is that as soon as you have to give it it’s own special meaning, you’re lost. Every single one of us, necessarily, has to be in the community in some way. Diversity is a foundational strength. There are communities that are pro-active and organic on the basis of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. How could we possibly think that artificial mono cultures are stronger, more adapted or more prone to creativity?
This is our third year honoring companies in New York City, with the Age Smart Awards. These awards recognize companies of all sizes who demonstrate that they really value workers of all ages through their workforce policies and practices. But by the time we honor these companies, they are already getting the benefit — they have won the prize of innovation and training that comes with diversity. This means that what they’re doing is just straightforward common sense!
The Age Smart Awards were created to raise awareness, and show everyone that these companies are winning with this strategy, and so others might want to try it. I look forward to the time where we don’t need to call this companies out for being Age Smart and hold them up for that as exemplars, because everyone will be doing it.
How did you end up working in this field. What drew you to it?
I have always done the same kind of work, in different contexts and with different populations. It consists of recognizing patterns that we’ve constructed socially and then made seem like the natural order of things: differences that appear inevitable.
There’s a range of issues that yield to different types of exclusion: on the basis of race, ethnicity, place of birth, physical ability, age, what you have or don’t. Those can be treated as issues, or as the natural order of things. I’ve been trying to make those assumptions able to be examined. If we make them, we can change them.
It was through the aging issue that I came to recognize that people with those characteristics aren’t a problem: it’s the rest of the world that’s the problem, because it isn’t designed to facilitate their participation in it. Once you get that insight you can apply it to lots of different populations and communities.
We don’t blame kids because they don’t fit onto adults furniture, but we don’t have a problem doing that with people who have different physical and mental abilities, with old people, and people who don’t speak our language.
Is there something specific that you have worked on in the last few years of which the outcome surprised you?
We have started thinking explicitly about how can we disrupt age segregation, and that’s going to reap more benefits than expected. These new ideas (which are very similar to a lot of old ones) of putting young and old people together, are turning out to be better than anybody ever imagined.
One idea, for example, is to make age friendly universities. That’s going to be very beneficial for young people, and it’s going help old people in a different way than what we thought. It can be expanded to the faculty and staff to help their lives have meaning after their full time working charge is concluded: they can tutor or mentor other scholars, catalog other archival collections, etc.
That’s the trick Age Smart employers are using: we don’t just need the energy, life goals, strength, and input that comes from one group of people, we need that from as many kinds of people as possible.
During the process of globalization and industrialization we didn’t notice the fact that we were completely restructuring the families and adopting a lot of interlocking different forms, values and desires that acted, synergistically, to make smaller and smaller living units be the standard for people. And that affected the way we relate to age.
I don’t think this was some organized plan, but people ended up living in very narrow age spans for a lot of their lives. Schools differentiated more and more: you’re in a school not with Kindergarten through 12 years old, but with an Elementary School and a Middle School, and High School. Then you’re in college and you’re really only around people of your same age and occupation, even with the career and role differentiation. When you have children you’re friends of the parents of kids around the age of yours, and so on.
During that process, the trend became to convince older people that their highest desire was to go into this nice retirement community, where everybody will be in the same situation as them, and there will be leisure activities, etc. That community is defined by exclusion: it doesn’t have kids, it doesn’t have middle age adults, and in many cases it doesn’t have any race or religion except yours.
Old people lose much meaningful contact. They lose all the enlightenment, spontaneity, participation, learning and development that is so thrilling about interacting with kids. But it’s hard for grownups that have jobs and responsibilities, to provide other ways of assistance and support to their parents.
We have no structures to help us solve that. I initially “coughed” at these things labeled “inter-generational”, because if you have to call it that, it’s fake. It sounds uncomfortable, awkward.
What do you think is the biggest obstacle to accomplish this?
In the case of age I think it’s agism, just as in the case of race it’s racism — prejudices reinforce one another. We don’t consciously make a connection between different kinds of prejudice, but unconsciously we do. And as soon as one is okay, more are okay.
Have you seen any innovation in the aging field that is getting particularly exciting?
Lately there’s been a critique to the tendency of advocating for the needs of older adults by promoting their vulnerability and dependency. There´s a growing recognition that that can promote ageism, which in turn precludes the investment that people are advocating for.
The basis of the argument for all people to have what they need to thrive, can’t be the portrayal of them as weak, without agency, dependent, hapless and hopeless.
There’s a growing realization that we have to recognize diversity. We’re not uni-dimensional, we’re multi-dimensional. You can be old and poor or old and rich, etc. You have to be clear and specific and not stereotype.
Do you actually see a trend that this is going in the right direction?
The old narrative is getting disrupted. All the powerful, mainstream aging groups in the US came together and hired socio linguistics and socio anthropological researchers, to analyze the narrative around aging and the public’s perception about it, and they explicitly made the conclusion I just gave you.
They put forward a manifesto called Reframing Aging, about what all these groups are doing to change their policy-making, programming and advocacy and use their language in a more nuanced and constructive way. Does it mean it’s completely transformed the nature of investment in aging? That would be a big thing to say.
The truth is that it’s very hard to draw the nature of the investment in aging, because if it’s done right it comes from all corners.