Even a casual reader of their local newspaper has seen the headlines in publications across our state. Attention grabbers in bold, large type which read: “NH’s aging population poses serious challenges,” and “Caring for a rapidly aging state.” Once you go past those provocative headers, you will read quotes from local experts about our state’s “gray demographic” and the subsequent rising costs- health care, housing, supportive services- of being the second oldest state in the U.S., only behind our northern neighbors in Maine.
Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has cast a further negative light on how we discuss issues of aging. While it is indeed statistically true that older adults, particularly those with underlying health conditions are more susceptible to the virus, the telling of the story publicly tended to divide our population into two classes, those over 60 and those under 60.
Many of these stories also juxtapose the aging issue alongside the outmigration of younger adults, portending a future NH rife with older adults consuming valuable resources and this population becoming a “problem to solve” tossed in the laps of local municipalities, policy makers and others.
NH is indeed a state with a high population of older adults. But rather than celebrate our state’s status as a place retirees want to move to our state due to quality of life, the availability of 55 and older housing and elderly exemptions afforded people once they have been a resident for three years, the public narrative often sees this as a negative. Conversely, older adults not only add to the community economically via spending, they also makeup a large percentage of volunteers in support of the social services safety net.
The use of crisis language, sometimes appearing to blame people for aging, is counter-productive to say the least. Take a deeper look at the stories and messaging and you will see the writers are- unintentionally creating, I believe – two classes of people: the older adults (aka them) and the rest of those (aka us). By setting up the “us vs them” dynamic, the language used to report on and describe the issue of aging is taking NH away from a community of shared problem-solving (what we are known for) and toward silos of common misconceptions. These are reinforced, unfortunately, by many forms of pop culture which portrays older adults as bumbling, slow, and basically in the way of progress.
What if there was a different way to have this important conversation? One that holds that we are all people first-by the way, all aging and doing so at the same rate-and that we all collectively own our future, problems, and solutions.
Enter the NH Alliance for Healthy Aging.
Formed in 2016, the NH Alliance for Healthy Aging (NHAHA) brings together individuals and groups from throughout the state to formulate and advance policies and services to support older adults and their families. In addition to our work on key issues, we are also seeking to support a different way to converse about issues related to aging in our state.
For instance, how about referring to an older adult as “building a momentum of experience” or “actively aging” as opposed to “growing old.” In the latter example, both mean the same thing but portrays it in very different ways.
Working alongside agencies in Maine, NHAHA, the Endowment for Health and other partners have continued the Reframing Aging training with the goal of not only better informing individual organizations, but also training new facilitators who could then carry the messaging forward. Last year, a new class of future facilitators was trained, which will further expand learning opportunities across our state.
We at NHAHA, along with our partner organizations, view 2021 and beyond not with trepidation, rather as an exciting opportunity to harness our collective expertise and energy toward a better future for all who choose to live in, or work in, our great state. We see this process as integral to that momentum and invite our communities to learn more about our work.
Chris Dugan is the Communications Coordinator for the NH Alliance for
Healthy Aging. To learn more, please visit: https://nhaha.info/