|ASTC Dimensions: January/February 2007
Fifty Plus: Engaging Today's Active Older Adults
A View from the 'Oldest' State
By Gillian Thomas
Jaime drives into Miami on his Harley Davidson and follows signs to the Miami Museum of Science & Planetarium. A sound engineer for 30 years, he recently sold his house in suburban Atlanta (not the same since his wife died) and moved to a center-city apartment with a studio. Spring is in the air, and this is his first long trip on the bike. He's headed to a short job with old friends at Miami's International Music Festival. The science museum is part of the "Neat Stuff" consortium, which gets and presents new electronic and computer products as they emerge on the market. Jaime wants to check out the new flexible screens he's heard about...
With 78 million Americans of the post-World War II "baby boom" generation rapidly approaching the traditional age for retirement, it's a good time to consider how science centers might better relate to older visitors.
If the boomers' behavior to date is any indication, their expectations and requirements for their later years will be very different from those of previous cohorts. And the sheer size of this group will challenge science centers and museums to rethink current approaches or risk losing a valuable sector of their audience. According to census predictions, by 2030 Americans over age 65 will make up 20 percent of the total population.
Add to this demographic projection the predicted changes in U.S. diversity and regional birth rates, and you have something that looks remarkably like my state, Florida, right now. Ahead of the curve in the 2000 U.S. Census, Florida had 17.6 percent of its population in the 65+ age group and only 22.8 percent in the 0-17 age group. (National figures were 12.4 percent and 25.7 percent, respectively.) In the same year, South Florida, the catchment area for the Miami Museum of Science & Planetarium, had 19.9 percent of its population at 65+ and 22.2 percent at 0-17. By 2025, it is predicted that the two age groups will balance out at around 21 percent.
Greater Miami was also one of the most diverse communities nationwide in 2000, with 40.5 percent of its population of Hispanic origin, 20.4 percent Black, not Hispanic, and 36.9 percent White, not Hispanic. The trend continues. Less a melting pot than a finely textured society, ours is a region where different groups live alongside one another but do not mingle. Already, approximately one-third of visitors to the Miami Museum of Science are of Hispanic origin, and our operation has become largely bilingual. Yet current statistics for the museum show only 6 percent of our visitors in the 65+ age group.
Attracting older audiences
The first step in attracting any new audience is to understand that audience. With that in mind, I recently invited a group of our museum's older volunteers to lunch. The average age around the table was probably 65 to 70.
"This museum has had good impact across the whole community," I told my guests, "but we want to increase the number of activities we do with older visitors." (I deliberately chose this neutral term, rather than "seniors" or "the aging community.") "Is there anything you would recommend that we do?"
They thought for a while, and then one lady spoke up: "Well, Rose and I know about this because we're heavily involved in arranging trips for the elderly...." To this active retiree, "older" meant people in residential care. Obviously, my lunch guests didn't see themselves as I saw them. That's important to remember as we plan for the new 50+ audience.
Like most clichés, "You're only as old as you think you are" recognizes a common truth. An experiment conducted by Yale University psychologist John Bargh further illustrates the power of suggestion when it comes to aging. Two mixed-age groups of volunteers were recruited, ostensibly to work on a task about sorting words into sentences. Each group was given a different set of words. One of the sets contained a number of aging-related words—"gray," "wise," "wrinkle," and the like. The other had no age-related words.
In actuality, the experiment didn't begin until the volunteers had completed their tasks and left the laboratory. As they walked back to the elevator and out to their cars, they were tracked by video camera. What Bargh found was that the people who had been focusing on age-related words walked more slowly than the non-aging-words group, and more of them stooped. Even thinking about aging, it seems, can have a negative impact.
Fortunately for those looking to serve older audiences, there is a range of data and information beginning to emerge about the process of aging itself and about the impact of the just-breaking "age wave" of baby boomers. Studies range from scientific research on the aging brain to surveys conducted by the adult housing industry to the 2004 Harvard School of Public Health and MetLife Foundation publication Reinventing Aging: Baby Boomers and Civic Engagement. Taken together, they can give us a sense of how boomers differ from previous cohorts and how we can begin to explore our options and opportunities for serving them.
According to the 2005 Del Webb survey (pdf, 6 pp.) conducted by Harris Interactive for the adult housing industry, almost 50 percent of U.S. baby boomers plan to change states in the next 10 years. The top two reasons cited are "to be closer to family" and "to live in a warmer climate," but some of the choices pose a challenge for museums. For example, the Del Webb survey indicated that boomers rate highly "opportunities for exercise": walking trails were the top choice (79 percent). But before we decide that museum volunteers could keep fit through helping to maintain our outdoor spaces, the second desire was "to avoid lawn maintenance."
Education, social activities, and security are also important: 41 percent want art or photography courses, 38 percent, college courses. Social life plays an important part: 52 percent of single respondents indicate they sometimes date/would like to date; 14 percent reported actively dating. This is an information technology-savvy group: 94 percent use e-mail.
Not everyone is feeling positive and looking forward to aging as a time of change and opportunity. The Harvard-MetLife Reinventing Aging report quotes the results of a survey among people a decade from retirement and categorizes their attitudes. They fall roughly into five groups:
- Strugglers (9 percent) have few financial resources; predominantly female, they were facing a life of increased insecurity as earned income diminishes.
- Anxious (23 percent) have some savings, felt employment was essential, and had health care concerns.
- Traditionalists (25 percent), with middle income and moderate savings, are the most diverse, had good intergenerational links, and expected to continue to work part-time to keep active.
- Self-Reliant (30 percent) are economically upscale, had significant savings, sought part-time work and integration in the community.
- Enthusiasts (13 percent) have substantially more savings, travel, and are optimistic, mainly male, and predominantly married.
The picture painted by this report also contrasts strongly with the traditional view of older people as possible volunteers. In fact, this group has a low incidence of volunteerism, preferring a short-term, focused activity that uses their professional expertise to a long-term, generalized, low-level task.
The Harvard-MetLife study suggests that museums need a compelling rationale for building new infrastructure on the foundation of existing institutional loyalties and capacities. Our present ways of talking about and presenting science may not be appropriate for older audiences. Reinventing Aging calls for "new language, meaning,
stories... that simultaneously reflect the changing cultural realities of the 21st century, to evoke a new sense of what is possible and engage with boomers and the general public in re-envisioning the roles of elders and the meaning and purpose of one's later years." For older adults, these later years can be a time of reflection and wanting to make sense of what they have achieved and now to give back to their community.
What are some of the roles science centers can offer? We are places for social contact and enjoyment, with an opportunity for visitors to stretch their brains. Given the wealth of developing research in this area, we might invite participants in aging research studies to act as mediators on the floor, to help the public understand the process of research, as well as its outcomes. They could also lead the development of new programs for adults, as well as have an active role in intergenerational activities which can have a focus on them and their needs.
Science centers already have links into the community. We need to explore how we can join with partners to facilitate the movement of older people into areas of significant contribution. Our reach across cultures is a specific strength that we bring to these potential partnerships.
Adapting to change
Our first task is to assess just how ready we are to really rethink our focus. Can we see older people outside of their relationship to children? Can we perceive the older volunteer not as someone doing a small, undemanding task, but as the originator of a higher-profile activity? Can we find the means to pay older adults to work for us? Can we adapt our exhibitions and programs to focus on adults in their own right?
It's easy to agree we have great demographic changes coming, but not so easy to change how we think or to imagine fundamentally different ways of doing things. For example, to offer a wider range of opportunities to correspond to the wider skill base of the 50+ audience, we may need to create different occasions for social exchange and to develop, with partners, communitywide service initiatives. Some of these initiatives could reach out to youth as well and help cement links across generations. We also need to change the image and presence of older people in our media campaigns.
Large-scale efforts will be needed to mobilize boomers to contribute their time, skills, and experience to address community problems at a local level. The partnerships, resources and most importantly new ways of thinking are essential is we are to make this a reality.
In the same way that YouthALIVE! Led the way in increasing the integration of underserved youth into science centers in the 1990s, a new initiative could both integrate older adults into science centers and increase science centers' strong links into, and impact on, local communities. SPRY's "Longevity Revolution" initiative has opened up the doors to the possibility; we just need to seize the opportunity and create the framework for this to happen.
I leave you with the following scenario, 10 years from now in our new Miami Museum of Science:
On a bright spring morning, Marie, a pediatrician, jogs over to the Miami Museum of Science. She is just back from Haiti, where she is directing a 20-year longitudinal study of children's health. As a participant in the Center on Aging at the University of Miami's long-term study of the effects of physical and mental activity on brain health, Marie has her own locker at the museum and can use staff facilities. She is part of a team that gives regular feedback on new products, particularly related to communication. Today, she intends to check out some new social games she's heard about. In the Meeting Place gallery, she joins four or five others at a round table to try an interactive game on the impact of climate change. Just then, a tall man in a leather suit pauses in the doorway to remove his sunglasses. Their eyes meet...
Gillian Thomas is president and CEO of the Miami Museum of Science & Planetarium, Miami, Florida, and a member of ASTC's board of directors. This article is adapted from a talk she gave at the "Longevity Revolution" conference in Washington, D.C., June 2006.