Ecumen CEO Kathryn Roberts Urges Colleagues To End Ageism

Ecumen CEO Kathryn Roberts is passionate about ending ageism.  In a recent speech, she urges her colleages to make ending ageism a top national priority. 

LeadingAge, the national trade association of not-for-profit senior housing and service providers, recently held its annual meeting in Indianapolis.  Ecumen CEO Kathryn Roberts, who is also LeadingAge Board Chair, addressed providers from around the country on a subject she is personally passionate about: ending ageism. Below is an excerpt from her speech.

The new LeadingAge vision statement is “An America Freed From Ageism.”  It is big. It is bold.  And it is certainly aspirational.

Like you, I live and work in the real world — where vision statements can seem like lofty ideals we write speeches about and print on posters to hang on our walls. But let me assure you, we chose this vision to come alive in our real worlds – where we are busy balancing budgets, caring for residents, meeting with families and creating new programs.

The reality is sobering:  ageism exists and it threatens to undermine our efforts to ensure a future for aging adults full of possibility and joy.

We don’t tolerate racism, sexism or the other “isms” that infest our world. But we tolerate, and actually collude in, ageism – through the jokes we tell and even in the beautiful buildings we build – buildings that can potentially isolate seniors from the rest of society.

As CEO at Ecumen, I have started to talk bluntly with our staff about Ageism. We are the most passionate about our clients being served with excellence.  With a little exploration, we also began to see the not-so-hidden biases and prejudices that color all of us.

We need to do away with negative, ageist stereotypes. To recognize everyone’s value, regardless of age. This vision celebrates life’s journey and it is embodied in basic respect and dignity for all.

And it starts with all of us. We can begin first by paying attention to our own inner monologues. How do we think about aging? What are our own perceptions about aging? What language do we currently use when we are talking about aging?  We ask each other, when was the last time you called one of your residents “honey” instead of using their name.  When does a person become “honey?”

Language matters, it’s real. It defines and creates our world. And when we change language, we begin to change our world.

Of course, the issues of Ageism are greater than language, but we can start there.

Eradicating Ageism will take an enormous, collective effort by all of us. Let’s begin with incremental changes and make our own communities free from negative perceptions about aging.  Together, we can ask the right questions that will outline the path we need to take to end ageism.

In addition to fighting Ageism, our challenge today, in this rapidly changing society, is to understand all of the forces that impact what we do, who we employ, and who we serve. Forces like: economics, politics, demographics, technology, and consumer attitudes. These forces will change — sometimes when we least expect it — so we must be prepared.

We face competition from other organizations, so we must be ready to make decisions – perhaps more quickly than we are comfortable with — and be willing to take risks that we might not be comfortable taking. But as I look around this room, I know without a doubt that you are ready — and more than able — to take this on.

We need to keep our finger on the pulse, stay smart about trends, and look around the corner while looking out over the horizon. As we do so, we all have an opportunity – and a responsibility – to influence how society thinks about aging.

LeadingAge’s new mission statement — To be the Trusted Voice For Aging in America — is something we know already is true. But we need to ensure that others in the aging services field, and perhaps more importantly, those who aren’t, recognize the incredible value we collectively bring to the table.

The new values for LeadingAge help reinforce this position of trust.

We are catalysts, reinforcing the need to be the difference in order for real change to happen.

We have the courage to act and to stand up for what we believe is right for aging adults and the families who support them.

We are stewards for this field and hold ourselves accountable for the well-being of the people we represent.

And we believe in community and the notion that we can accomplish more together, than we can as individuals. We must look for new opportunities to partner within our field as well as in our communities.

Being here at Annual Meeting reminds me what an incredible group of people make up the fabric of this organization. Together, we will focus on the core priorities that impact all of us. We will work side by side, knowing that we have a network to support us when we need help and colleagues who we also call friends.

Let’s not forget that we are in a position of leadership in our field. We must model exceptional behavior and fight for what is right and fundamental to the work we do.

Next year, I hope to be standing before you in New Orleans talking about the progress we have made towards achieving our vision. That progress starts with you, in your communities.