Philanthropy Should Focus on the Assets of Aging

Friday, April 22, 2016

by Teresa Bonner, Director of Programs, Aroha Philanthropies
Teresa was a presenter at the recent PNY program “Artful Aging: How the Arts Are Transforming Aging.” This "Insights" flows from that discussion. 

It’s time for America to put the brakes on our national obsession with youth and our dismissal of the potential of older adults. And in light of the dramatically changing demographics of the country, now is the perfect time for grantmakers to re-assess our programs and consider opportunities for the 55+ population.

Ageism causes us to think of old people as simply that:  old, cut from the same piece of cloth, with few distinguishing characteristics.  Mick Jagger is old.  Your mom may be old.  Would you assume they have the same capabilities and opinions?

Start noticing, and you’ll see ageism everywhere.

  • Think about the language you hear everyday:  geezer, old lady, dirty old man.  Can you imagine intelligent, educated people using equivalent language about people of color or people with disabilities? 
  • How many times a day do we see ads for products that are “anti-aging” or “age-defying” – despite the fact that we know there’s no such thing?
  • Consider the often-used term “silver tsunami.”  A tsunami destroys everything in its path, and all you can do is run away. Is this what we really think about the bonus of 30+ years of longevity that we have today?
  • Next time you fill out a survey, notice the age categories.  Standard survey classifications are 15-24, 25-34, 35-44, 45-54, 55-64 and 65+.  Do people 65-105 have the same opinions? Or do we just not care what they are?



So what does this have to do with philanthropy? Ageism creates walls.  Ageism makes us think that old = different.  It creates a social divide between “us” and “old.”  Ageism legitimizes segregation by age, a failed experiment of the last century.

As funders, we like to talk about addressing problems “upstream.” We like to help youth and we recognize their potential, with good reason.  But someone who is 55 may have 50 more years of life - years of potential that our culture wastes.  Upstream is much longer than we think.

Historically, aging service providers have focused almost exclusively on the deficits, not the assets, of late life. But when the philanthropic discussion around aging focuses exclusively on illness, frailty and dementia, it reinforces the ageist and inaccurate messages that stereotype older adults and limit their potential.

In recent years, philanthropy has moved to an asset-based, rather than deficit-based, approach to many social issues.  It’s a fundamental reframing based on the common-sense approach of building on strength.  There will and should always be funders of basic services, but enlightened philanthropists now see, for example, the strengths and assets of Native culture, not just its poverty.  Funders today work to empower people with disabilities, not simply provide charity to them. Why aren’t we expanding this approach to older adults?

Aging in America requires radical transformation.  Artful aging is emerging as an important strategy to capitalize on the strengths of age and yield improvements in quality of life and health of older adults. It encourages active participation in learning, making, and sharing the arts. It is based on the same arts learning principles employed in youth arts education, but is tailored to the unique strengths and needs of older adults.

Research has validated the benefits of participation in artful aging programs, most notably through the seminal work of Dr. Gene Cohen, who found that older adults who participated in programs led by teaching artists resulted in fewer doctor visits, fewer falls and less medication usage. Other research highlights the potentially protective effect of participatory arts to prevent dementia, reduce depression, and reduce social isolation.

Yet philanthropy hasn’t yet rallied to this cause in a significant way. In part, this is because grantmaking is subject to the same silos seen in any institution. Funders of aging services and funders of the arts aren’t aware that their respective goals can be effectively met by supporting artful aging programs. In part, it’s because we funders carry the same biases as the rest of the population.

Since 2013, Aroha Philanthropies has invested more than $2.4 million in supporting the emerging artful aging movement.  This new field needs infrastructure, more exemplary programs, many more teaching artists, and strong research to build the case.  In the past year, Aroha has convened funders in California, Minnesota and New York to raise awareness of this opportunity.  We are launching a national demonstration project, “Seeding Artful Aging,” in spring 2016, in order to inspire and support a broad expansion of this field. 

We invite our grantmaking colleagues in the public and private sectors to join us in embracing the potential of late life, both professionally and personally. We invite you to visit the Aroha website to find short, beautiful videos to inspire and an extensive resource guide to help you learn more.  

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