LeadingAge Magazine · November-December 2016 • Volume 06 • Number 06
Katie Smith Sloan
Katie Smith Sloan

A year ago, I accepted LeadingAge’s offer to become its next president and CEO.

I said then—and still believe today—that what I love most about LeadingAge is the members who care deeply for our moms and dads, grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts and uncles, siblings, and friends.

It takes a big heart to do that day in and day out. I also said that we need brave hearts to lead us into the future. And LeadingAge has no shortage of these courageous souls.

This year, the LeadingAge board of directors took a hard look at who we are and where we want to take the organization in the coming years. This process led us to create a bold new vision: An America freed from ageism.

It takes real courage to decide that we, as an organization, want to permanently change the image of aging in our society.

Here’s why the board acted as they did.

We are a youth-oriented society with a population that is rapidly aging. And in our society, ageism is insidious. It perpetuates powerful and pervasive stereotypes that demean the individual. It denies them the respect they rightfully have earned over decades. And it often determines the quality of their lives.

Instead of celebrating life’s journey, ageism assaults America’s core values—that all men and women are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It takes real courage to decide that we, as an organization, want to permanently change the image of aging in our society.

 

Why is it that we, as a nation, embrace the pursuit of happiness for generation X and millennials, but not for the greatest generation and baby boomers?

Why is it that we, as a nation, place such an emphasis on liberty for all yet accept as inevitable the limitations on older adults simply because of their age?

Why is it that we, as a nation, take such pains to ensure that we can enjoy life to the fullest unless and until we cross some imaginary line that marks our descent into a life of loneliness, pain, and suffering?

And why is it that we, as a nation, advocate passionately for the rights of people of color except when the color is grey?

The answer is ageism.

An America freed from ageism is a big and bold vision. And it will take brave hearts to make it happen.

We all need to be a part of this.

Ageism seeps into everything we have been doing for many decades.

  • It inhibits staff recruitment.
  • It clouds the public’s view of what we do.
  • It negatively influences philanthropy.
  • And it leads to onerous public policies.

Ageism is working against all that we believe in.

It paints aging as a disease that cannot be cured. It drives paternalism and reinforces the notion that older adults are a burden to their families and to society.

At its inception, more than 50 years ago, the founders of LeadingAge stated, "We are here to ensure that every older person has the right and the opportunity to develop his or her full human potential, regardless of age."

This remains true today.

At LeadingAge, we believe in the worth of people, regardless of age. We believe that we ALL deserve respect, dignity, and choice. We believe that we serve a larger purpose: one that transcends our day to day work, and one that places a large responsibility on our shoulders.

Eventually, these conversations will frame aging as a stage of life that embodies experience, wisdom, and perspective; that sees aging as an opportunity for growth, fulfillment, and joy.

 

We all need to be part of a bigger, broader conversation about ageism.

These conversations may not be easy, but if we dig deep, focus on what’s important, and reflect on what we do to enable people to develop their full human potential, these conversations will prove to be productive.

In the coming days and months, please start these conversations in your communities, with your colleagues, and with family and friends.

Let’s imagine an America freed from ageism.

Perhaps it’s a world where older people get—and keep—jobs. Or, maybe it’s one where caregivers don’t suffer physically, emotionally, and financially. And maybe, it’s both—or, something else entirely.

Start thinking about the subtle ways that ageism is infused into our everyday lives. And have the courage to speak out against it. Only by recognizing it and actively working to change it can we begin to make a difference.

It is my fervent hope that these conversations will continue and that they will grow from a low murmur to a loud roar. Eventually, these conversations will frame aging as a stage of life that embodies experience, wisdom, and perspective; that sees aging as an opportunity for growth, fulfillment, and joy.

Our vision does not mean we are changing who we are as an organization. We are building upon our strengths as a community of aging services professionals and we are well-positioned for a strong and vibrant future. We will tirelessly address the priorities that are crucial to you today.

We are dedicated to making a difference in advocacy, education, and research.

We are committed to being the trusted voice for aging in America.

As a community of aging services professionals, we all must be stewards and hold ourselves accountable for the well-being of the people whose lives we touch.

We must have the courage to stand up for what we believe is right so we can permanently erase the stigmas around aging.

Now, more than ever, we ALL need to amplify our voices so that the issues that matter most to us are heard loud and clear.


Katie Smith Sloan is president and CEO of LeadingAge.