Creating Empowered Cultures

You do not have to change,
survival is not mandatory.
Edwards Deming

Fluffy Dandelion

The act of “retiring” can be a profound threat to one’s significance or relevance and may even influence a person’s future direction and life satisfaction. When one’s former position and recognition are lost, there may no longer be opportunities for experiencing personal significance and satisfaction. For many, physical concerns regarding appearance, peak performance and memory also begin to color their attitudes toward themselves and their personal value. They mindlessly accept the stereotypes and perceptions of aging, as a time of loss and decline; and begin a downhill slide. Their beliefs about aging and “retirement” all too often become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Life's Second Half ... A Positive and Joyful Experience

On the other hand, the size of the aging population offers both for profit and not for profit organizations golden opportunities to increase revenue and cut costs while increasing life satisfaction of engaged consumers/members. Life’s second half can become a positive and joyful experience…an adventure in personal growth and fulfillment for those involved with empowering organizations. To create empowered cultures, organizations need to develop both innovative and personally satisfying activities, opportunities for new relationships and meaningful civic engagement.

The first step in creating an empowering culture is for community leadership to reconsider what they may have mindlessly accepted as fact earlier in life. If those serving older adults view later life as a time of loss and infirmity rather than growth and enrichment, they will have little success in creating an empowering culture. In the absence of enlightened leadership, organizations can unwittingly but flagrantly encourage dependency by planning every element of the programs, services and activities. In doing so, the organization contributes to the stereotype of older adults as disengaged and dependent.

Identifying Signs of Ageism

Team Work

To build an enlightened team organizations must do as much as possible to identify signs of real or inadvertent ageism. Due to decades of negative aging stereotypes perpetuated by the media, having a negative aging bias is not uncommon. Still, few organizations attempt to identify bias, incorporate aging self-image as part of the interview process, or require letters of recommendation from older adults not related to them.

The second step in the creation of an empowered culture is to create ‘meaningful’ opportunities for leadership and service. A leadership team that embraces positive aging will always involve older adults in the creation of services and the decisions that affect them. Not just as volunteers, but as respected members of an operating team where their opinions are both respected and encouraged. This can easily be accomplished by asking for resumes that detail experience in the areas where additional help is needed rather than asking for volunteers.

Organizations cannot empower older adults; because they never had their power. While they can attempt to control and manipulate those they serve; the consumers have the real power and choice of how to exercise that power. Recognizing and celebrating that reality is a critical step in organizational change. In our virtual world, the consumer is increasingly in control. News, both good and bad, can be shared instantly. If bad news should become viral it can offset years of positive public relations.

Words Matter – Removing Stereotypes

Word Face

The third step is to remove barriers to participation by removing stereotypical words and phrases from your organization’s mission, communications and marketing materials. Many people view organizations that use stereotypical, descriptive terms in their branding (Senior Centers, Retirement Communities, Continuing Care Retirement Communities, etc.) as threatening to personal significance and representing a shrinking world – service with restrictive, bureaucratic rules, and limited meaningful opportunities for service.

To move to a “retirement community” or use “senior services” is to accept being classified as failing or dependent. Amenities and a variety of programs are little compensation for perceived losses. Until organizations abandon exclusionary terms and embrace an ageless language of inclusion, they will be working at cross-purposes with later life values and cognitive processing.

The biggest barrier to creating an empowered culture is resistance by community leaders. Over the years, I have observed more than one community leader commenting, “But you seem to be endorsing something akin to letting the inmates run the institution.” The reality is that many consumers of services are capable of running the organization equally as well as current management.

However, most are no longer interested in running a marathon; but would like to be entrusted with a sprint now and then. The key to creating a dynamic, empowered organization is to simply tap by the imagination of both older adults and staff. It is sad that organizations with access to thousands of years of wisdom and life experience available to them at no cost fail to capitalize on it.

Adapting to Change

As Darwin once observed, it is not the strong that survive; but those that can adapt to change. What is true in nature is also true in creating empowered organizations. The senior living industry in specific and aging services in general is currently riding a tsunami of change. It is both and exciting and treacherous time. To adapt, leaders must remember that creating community does not end with the construction of buildings; it is an ongoing process…or should be. In Japan, this process is called Kaizen (finished never is). [1] Creative, empowered communities are growing in number and will quickly gain a market advantage wherever they exist.

Through the mindful creation of empowered organizations, later life will again become celebrated as the crown jewel of the human experience. Embracing positive aging celebrates the uniqueness and worth of each individual and encourages older adults to discover the joy that comes from giving—from using their time and talents to improve the lives of others and make a difference in the world around them.


[1] Kaizen is a Japanese philosophy that focuses on continuous improvement throughout all aspects of life. When applied to the workplace, Kaizen activities continually improve all functions of a business, from manufacturing to management and from the CEO to the assembly line workers.