By Kathryn White
When longtime Northside resident Janine Vanderburg, director of Changing the Narrative, got a call from Dr. Becca Levy, Ph.D., about connecting her audiences with Levy’s new book, Vanderburg didn’t hesitate.
“The first few chapters about Dr. Levy’s research are what I’ve found in my work to be what makes the book so effective, and dangerous,” Vanderburg said. “I consider the book dangerous because it forces all of us away from the ideas that ageism is ‘just another -ism’ or ‘something that happens to somebody else.’”
“Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long and How Well You Live” opens with Levy’s decades-running research—now confirmed by 400 studies across five continents—into the ways internalized beliefs about aging influence how we actually age.
You can now add your own mindset to the host of genetic and environmental factors you’ve been getting up-to-speed on. With this twist: age stereotypes you internalized starting in childhood operate unconsciously throughout your life until the day when they start to become what Levy calls self-relevant.
Negative age beliefs you were trained to think about other people begin to turn against your own self as you age. Levy writes that these host of beliefs “operate on a societal level in silent, complex, and often deadly ways, intertwining and flexing like octopus tentacles.”
The book moves onto data and stories debunking negative age-related stereotypes and ends with three chapters and substantial appendices on how ageism operates and what we can do to achieve individual and societal age liberation. When Changing the Narrative, the Denver Public Library (DPL) and NextFifty Initiative, brought Levy and her book to a Zoom audience in May and June, the reception was eager.
Participants ranged from those looking to improve work settings to people seeking to influence attitudes among friends and family to founders of activities like the Women Over 50 Film Festival, Top Sixty Over Sixty, and Art Against Ageism. Levy shared findings such as an additional average of seven and a half years of life for study participants with “the most-positive views on aging.”
This was an advantage greater than low cholesterol or low blood pressure (which add on an average of four years) or avoiding smoking (which adds three years).
As Levy spoke, the chat lit up with comments like, “Every one of us can make a difference in changing people’s perceptions of aging,” and “A must read for all ages.” Vanderburg and Changing the Narrative are building on the momentum—and international reach—of these two Breaking the Age Code events. They’ve created a discussion guide for people to use in their own reading groups. They’ve assembled suggestions for creating anti-ageism programs in other communities.
A third facilitated book club is scheduled for Sep. 13 at noon on Zoom and is co-sponsored again by DPL. Registration for the event is available at denverlibrary.org/olderadults. Amy DelPo, JD, MLS, administrator of Older Adult Services for Denver Public Library, considers DPL to be an anti-ageist organization. “We’re focused not only on ageism in our culture, but also on how the library can impact that. We can influence how our culture views older adults and how we treat them.”
DPL’s Older Adult Services offers a wide variety of activities from cooking, art, and poetry classes to mediation and even money matters. DelPo is particularly enthusiastic about DPL’s intergenerational activities.
“Research shows, for both age groups, that intergenerational programming helps promote positive age-related beliefs,” DelPo said.
For example, the Photography and Memory Project pairs University of Denver students with older adults.
“They take a photography class together and exchange treasured photographs and tell the stories of those photographs,” DelPo said. “Through that catalyst of sharing their stories, they form deep connections. Both groups have talked about the power of seeing themselves in a new light and seeing people from another generation in a new light.”
Vanderburg is heartened that so many are fired up about making change. “It affects all of us when we internalize ageist messages,” she said. “It affects our physical and mental health, it affects our likelihood of developing dementia, it affects our life span. This really is an all ages issue. The attitudes we have about aging when we’re younger affect our ability to age well.”
More information about Changing the Narrative is at changingthenarrativeco.org. DelPo can be reached at email@example.com and a list of upcoming DPL events is at denverlibrary. org/olderadults. Do you have story ideas for The Gray Zone? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.