Ageism and Workforce Education
November 16, 2017 | by Jane Sherwin
A healthy workplace culture that avoids ageism helps both employees and clients benefit.
A healthy workplace culture that avoids ageism helps both employees and clients benefit.
Experts in aging strongly agree: Employees and residents alike can benefit significantly from a shift toward a shared role between residents and staff for personal growth. At a time of demographic change, when employers face the need to attract and retain experienced employees, such a shift is well worth exploring.
Successful managers are guiding their teams toward a healthy workplace culture free of ageism and focused on the full potential of their clients.
Kay van Norman, who works with organizations to reframe attitudes toward aging, sees 3 keys to educating a workforce about ageism. First, she recommends an onboarding process to help employees examine their own assumptions about aging: What are the stereotypes learned from family and culture, and how do these impact their approach to older adults?
“We need to learn that aging does not define what a person is capable of,” van Norman says. “We should look at aging from the perspective of the disability movement. It completely changed the way we look at people with disabilities, demonstrating that adaptive strategies give any disabled person the opportunity to do what they care about, regardless of impairment.” In the same way, employees also need to learn to “take age out of the equation.”
Second, employees should be encouraged to understand that what they are learning about older adults applies as much to themselves, in their own personal journey through life.
Third, says van Norman, “A workforce benefits from a mindset of partnership in care with residents, rather than caregiving for the helpless. We should encourage employees to think of helping residents to live the best life they can live, to step up to the plate and be an active participant in the care they receive. Safety and security are essential, but so are meaningful activities such as community service.”
Teresa Beshwate thinks that society has a long way to go in understanding the effects of ageism. Beshwate is the managing director of operations at Masterpiece Living, which forms partnerships with organizations to make use of research about aging and to change the experience and perception of aging.
She points to research clearly indicating that ageism has a negative impact on health, as well as making the thought of retirement living distasteful. She cites a Mather Lifeways article “orange paper” on aging which outlines the many ways perceptions affect older adult well-being. For example, in a 23-year study, older adults who reported more positive self-perceptions of aging lived 7.5 years longer than older adults with more negative self-perceptions.
“We need to teach employees what ageism is and why it matters, how to recognize it, and how to respond,” says Beshwate. “This means every single employee, including those who have little or no direct interaction with clients.”
She says that language also continues to be a significant concern.
“Words and phrases continue to be paternalistic, not person-centered. Our more successful partners are giving our residents the power to say, ‘I don’t think this phrase works for us,’ when they hear it used by staff. For example, “level of living” is preferable to “level of care,” just as “apartment, or suite,” is preferable to “unit,” and “a person living (rather than suffering) with dementia” to “a dementia resident.” “My residents” and “our residents” are also possessive and paternalistic terms.”
Judson Park, a HumanGood retirement community in Des Moines, WA, serves 330 residents with a variety of needs, and has a home care program. With “a broad range of acuity levels,” says Executive Director Nikole Jay, Judson Park is careful to discourage ageism within an inclusive environment.
“We avoid segregating by condition,” says Jay, “and for that reason, for example, don’t talk about ‘assisted’ or ‘independent’ living in our home care services.” Programs are open to everyone and reflect an intentional mixing. We ask all our residents, ‘What are you interested in, and where do you want to grow?’”
Judson Park works to create “a culture founded in relationships and growth,” Jay says. “When staff and residents get to know one another, then age doesn’t become a factor. The wheelchair becomes invisible.” For this reason, residents continue to engage in community life programs, even as their conditions may change.
Judson Park’s residents play a significant role in coaching staff toward this culture of relationships and growth. Resident leaders are lifestyle coaches to other residents, but they also lead the Judson Park team “to ask what aging, and personal growth, really mean.”
To build their culture, Judson Park seeks candidates who are naturally curious and adaptable, and already aware of the possibilities of such a culture.
“When onboarding,” says Jay, “attitudes and behaviors, language and conversational skills are equally if not more important than the services provided.” New team members are given cards printed with the HumanGood mission and its commitments. They spend a full day in training to support “an engaged and purposeful life” for clients. Every shift holds a “Daily Connect” huddle, reviewing how well the team is working toward a purposeful culture.
“Our workforce is not so much spending more time with residents as relating to them in a deeper and more meaningful way. On our intranet site, operating like Facebook, teams and residents both post success stories in meeting our standards for a culture free of ageism.
“It’s valuable for the team, too, to support one another in personal and professional growth, to have conversations on how we take care of ourselves.” Jay sees Judson Park’s millennial workforce really wanting and needing such fulfillment, and delighted by what they find.
“Staff, including those who’ve been with us for as many as 30 years, are spiritually connected in a new way to their work. I’ve heard them say, ‘Wow, I had no idea working with older adults could be like this.’”
Judson Park has seen a great increase in team members referring acquaintances for employment. They also have seen an increase in team members who begin on call and move to full time positions that initially are posted in house.
In 2016, Presbyterian Retirement Communities Northwest changed its name to “Transforming Age. It serves 5,000 seniors in 15 retirement communities in Washington, Minnesota and Nebraska, and provides home-based care to 3,000 through its affiliate, Full Life Care, in greater Seattle. The organization also creates partnerships to build support for seniors in a variety of areas such as technology, housing and community service. The workforce includes 1,800 staff members.
Torsten Hirche, CEO, thinks the name change has attracted potential employees who want to make the world a better place.
“The new name shows where we are headed, and draws potential employees with a mindset of independence, a healthy curiosity, and a willingness to observe and to point out things that need changing. This is true of millennials, but really this outlook can be found at any age.” The organization uses Slack, an internal social media platform, where hundreds of team members are exchanging ideas and solving problems.
Their focus on a culture of personal growth is giving Transforming Age “a reputation locally and nationally as a great place to work,” says Hirche. “We’ve seen a huge uptick in internal promotions. People want to stick around and do more.”
One of Transforming Age’s services is a website, “When I’m 99,” a forum to challenge ageism that is open to the public. It’s a team effort by both residents and employees, who work together to submit news stories from other outlets, and new content about seniors. There are opinion pieces, articles by experts in aging, and pieces about “health care, travel, continuing education, fitness and other areas where people can thrive at any age.” Under the “Social Change” tab readers will find an article on discrimination against women in technology; under “Lifestyle” a piece on sex and the senior center, and a New York Times article on older adults who choose to remain in the workforce.
Transforming Age invites any interested provider to contact them about forming partnerships to strengthen aging services.
Leading Age members seem to be reasonably well-informed about the legal aspects of age discrimination, according to members of the Leading Age Legal Committee. While the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the Older Workers Benefit Protection Act are central, related state legislation can be even more strict and should be well understood.
“We see somewhat fewer difficulties around ageism and its legal consequences than across all industries,” says Scott Moore, of Baird Holm LLP in Nebraska. He thinks ageism claims may appear most often when a reduction in force occurs.
“When facing a claim of ageism, it’s always wise for an employer to consult with an attorney, and to work closely with the HR department. This can really pay dividends in the future,” says Moore, who also says that clear and comprehensive job descriptions are essential to avoid claims.
“LeadingAge members tend to resolve any charges of discrimination at an earlier stage than other industries,” says Dan Burke, of Graydon Head & Ritchey, LLP in Ohio. “The members we work with tend to be mission- or faith-based, and treat employees as well as residents with respect. They have better procedures for employees to express such concerns, and to resolve them.”
“LeadingAge members should make sure that their workforce represents people of all ages. They should also review their personnel policies protecting against ageism, and of course provide training about discrimination of any kind,” says Fred Preis, of Breazeale, Sachse & Wilson, LLP in Louisiana.
All 3 attorneys have observed “a kind of paternalism” that, while well-intentioned, can affect employees as well as clients.
“When an older employee is no longer able to carry out a task, an employer may think they are respecting the dignity of the older worker by quietly assigning the work to someone else,” says Burke. “But this can result in the kind of confusion that leads to claims of ageism.”
Moore agrees. “If a long-term employee is valued, don’t just do the easiest thing. Stick with well-defined job descriptions, or restructure the job. To say, ‘we have to be nice to her because she’s been with us for so long’ is a form of ageism.’”
Jane Sherwin is a writer who lives in Belmont, MA.