The Power of One

If you think that as an individual you can’t change people’s minds about aging –– think again.

 




Recently, I turned 70 years old. And I was particularly excited about reaching that milestone. That’s right. You read me correctly. Not fearful or depressed, but excited.


However, it was more than arriving at 70 that elated me. That’s because I received one of the most meaningful birthday cards I could ever have imagined. Instead of being a dreadful over-the-hill one (you know, the kind of ageist, black-balloon sentiment that’s meant to be funny in its snarky acknowledgement of the fear of getting older that pervades our culture), it actually celebrated my age as a positive achievement. Unheard of, in my experience.


Three years ago, a different friend sent me an over-the-hill card, which I took in a good-natured way. But something clicked (or rather, snapped) in me, and that’s when I decided to do something about it.


Before telling you what I did, I need to explain that as a longtime reporter and editor, I’ve learned that when seeking a source of information, always start at the top: the CEO, president, chair of the board, etc. Of course, you might get kicked down a few rungs to someone lower on the hierarchical ladder, but sometimes you actually get the attention of the person in charge.


So I looked at the back of the over-the-hill card and saw that it was produced by a major company. I looked up its website, found the name of its CEO and the address of its headquarters. Rather than call or email him, I decided to include his company’s product in my communication. I whited out the signature of my friend on the birthday card and wrote a long note to the CEO.


I said that I was a 67-year-old gerontologist and explained why the card and others like it are offensive and ageist. I posited that his company wouldn’t consider creating a card that was racist, sexist, ableist, or homophobic, and that advanced age is nothing to belittle and mock because age discrimination seriously harms people’s lives in many ways.


I put the card in a different envelope and mailed it to the CEO at the headquarters. I didn’t really expect anything to come of my effort; I was just glad to vent my frustration.

A month later, I received a letter from that company’s director of corporate communications. “Thank you,” she began, ”for taking the time to write our CEO to share your thoughts on the recent birthday card you received. Your letter was passed along to me, and I wanted to take the opportunity to respond to your specific concerns.”


Not surprisingly, she rationalized that their cards are meant to address a large number of customers with a range of tastes. But then I was startled at how she closed the letter: “I have…shared…your feedback with our creative teams for them to take into consideration for the planning of future lines.”


Often we feel that as individuals we have little power on our own to change the status quo, especially when it has been shaped by large groups of people in power. “I’m only one person,” we tell ourselves, “and there’s nothing I can do about it.”


Well, think again. What happened to me wasn’t a fluke experience; that's because it happened again, in another context.


For a long time, I’ve been annoyed by the close-up photographs of wrinkled hands that accompany many articles about older people. It’s as if we are a group of pathetic, passive victims who do nothing but sit and let life happen. Not even our faces –– which would identify us as individuals –– are shown.


So several months ago, I wrote an article for Next Avenue called “How Photos Showing Older Adult Hands Reveal Cultural Bias.” Once it appeared online, I then referred to it each time I saw posted on social media an article using a hands-only photograph. I requested that the publisher find a different photograph showing an older adult as a whole human being in a vital, person-centered context. And it worked in two instances: once for a very significant national organization and another time for a major medical school.


Yes, it happened twice, but I haven’t given up. I’ll keep calling out ageist instances every time I encounter them, in the hope that my efforts will continue to make a difference.


As an older adult consumer, I’m not unusual. I know lots of others who feel the same way about wanting to change the way society views us. I used to tell myself that I had no such power on my own. But I was wrong. And you’re wrong if you feel that way, too. Take a chance and try going directly to the source of your dissatisfaction. You might be surprised at the outcome.


As surprised as I was to get that lovely 70th birthday card this year. You see, it was created by that same card company to whose CEO I wrote. While its staff still produce the over-the-hill, black-balloon variety of greetings, they have now added more pro-aging cards to their repertoire. The last line of mine said, “You’ve mastered the art…of being young at heart.”


Yeah, I know. They’ve got a long way to go, and that one needs work. But it’s a beginning –– an effort they might never have made, were it not for the Power of One.


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