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Why Create an Age-Friendly University? It Will Help to End Ageism

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Richard T. Moore
September 23, 2020

Many ASPA members are thought leaders in academia. A large number of our colleagues both on campuses and in practice settings have spoken out and contributed to research on the burning issue of systemic racism. There’s another seriously ingrained bias that also needs to be addressed, especially in the halls of ivy; systemic ageism!

Colleges and universities, over time, change societal attitudes in more positive, thoughtful directions. Changing attitudes about race have been driven, in large part, by students and faculty in higher education. They could also be a driving force in combatting ageism! Why should ageism be an issue for the thought leaders of today and tomorrow?

Look at the attitude of much of society toward the disproportionate number of deaths among older adults in nursing homes as a result of COVID-19. Shir Shimoni, of King’s College London, in an April 2, 2020 article entitled, “How Coronavirus Exposes the Way We Regard Ageing and Old People,” wrote:

 “… news coverage not only emphasizes that the elderly are at much higher risk but also describes them as a passive and vulnerable minority. This kind of portrayal ultimately strengthens the idea that old people impose an undue burden on society and more specifically on the health system, and that addressing their needs might endanger younger people.

In times of public emergency, social truths are revealed. The coronavirus crisis is one such emergency, and it reveals that the lives of the elderly appear to matter less and, in some cases, are even deemed disposable. Some went so far as to commend the virus, calling it a ‘boomer remover’”.

Similarly, Nina Kohn, writing an  article in the Washington Post from May 8, 2020 entitled, “Pandemic Exposes Painful Truth: America Doesn’t Care About Older People,” added:

“Of course, older adults are at heightened risk, even though COVID-19 strikes younger people, too. But across America—and beyond—we are losing our elders not only because they are especially susceptible. They’re also dying because of a more entrenched epidemic: the devaluation of older lives. Ageism is evident in how we talk about victims from different generations, in the shameful conditions in many nursing homes and even—explicitly—in the formulas some states and health-care systems have developed for determining which desperately ill people get care if there’s a shortage of medical resources.”

There’s a growing international movement in higher education, that could be a major force in bringing an end to this form of ageism. It’s known as, “Age-Friendly Universities.” Richard Eisenburg stated in a Forbes Magazine article on June 4, 2019:

“There are now 51 colleges and universities around the world that are part of what’s known as the Age-Friendly University Global Network. They range from mammoth Arizona State University to tiny Williams James College in Newton, Mass. in the United States, and include schools in Europe, Asia and Canada. Eight years ago, there were none… To become an Age-Friendly University, a school just needs to endorse the 10 principles that Dublin City University came up with when it launched the initiative in 2012 — an outgrowth of the World Health Organization’s and AARP’s age-friendly cities movement.”

There are a number of advantages to being an Age-Friendly University beyond educating future generations that would work to end ageism. As a practical matter, it will offset the coming cliff in the number of traditional college-age students, and turn it into a lift, by encouraging more older adults to return to college for new skills and personal improvement.  It will also attract older adult students who can enrich the academic courses by introducing real-life experience into courses and create an alumni body closer to the age when they are capable of significant financial contributions.

It will also better prepare traditional college-age students for the multi-generational workforce they will enter upon graduation. As an August 2020 AARP Issues Brief explains:

“The world’s population is growing older faster than at any time in human history. Despite the pandemic, globally people ages 60 and older continue to outnumber children ages 5 and younger, and the 60-plus population is growing at a rate four times faster than the overall global population. Workers are living and working longer, with four to five generations working side by side. Many aspects of the future of work remain unclear, but the multigenerational workforce is a reality that’s here to stay. Helping global employers adapt their workplace practices to capitalize on the impact of an aging population is imperative if we are to respond to employers’ needs and unlock this future workforce potential. Doing so will help us build stronger communities and enable people of all ages to live happier, healthier, and more fulfilling lives.”

Becoming an Age-Friendly University or college has benefits for higher education’s survival and for better preparation of students to succeed in their careers. It will also prepare coming generations to better value older adults and help end negative attitudes about age that exist in today’s society.


Author: Richard T. Moore has served in both elective and appointed public office at local, state, and federal levels of government. He served for nearly two decades each in the Massachusetts House and Senate, as well as being chosen as President of the National Conference of State Legislatures. He also served for a time as President of the Massachusetts Assisted Living Association. Mr. Moore is a long-time member of ASPA serving terms as Massachusetts Chapter President and National Council member. His email address is [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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