Birthday cards designed for older adults that joke about aches and pains, memory loss, sagging skin and awkward doctor appointments are a glaring example of ageism—making assumptions about a person that are often negative, based solely on their age.
However, promoting stereotypes under the guise of whimsical greeting card messages is actually harmful, said Sara Breindel, chief of staff at Colorado-based Changing the Narrative.
“If I’m telling an ageist story in private in a birthday card, I’m probably going to be ageist in other situations,” she said. “If I give a card that says, ‘Old dogs cannot learn new tricks’ and I work in human resources hiring people, I’m probably not treating the pool of applicants the same way.”
Founded in 2018, Changing the Narrative is an ageism-awareness initiative that aims to change the way people think, act and talk about aging and older adults because words hurt in many different ways.
Ageism increases divisions between generations, damages our health and shortens our lives when we believe in it, explained Breindel, citing research from the book, “Breaking the Age Code” by Becca Levy, PhD. Levy found that those with age-positive beliefs lived on average seven and a half years longer than those with negative beliefs.
“Ageism also hurts our ability to find work and maintain employment,” she said. “People over 50 have a harder time getting jobs, keeping jobs and are more likely to get laid off.”
When we change the stories and words themselves, such as not implying you shouldn’t work beyond a certain age and replacing the term “senior citizens” with “older adults,” employers are more open to connecting to generations and hiring older workers, Breindel said.
All of Changing the Narrative’s workshops and tools are based on changing the stories we tell about aging to eliminate discrimination in health care (doctors not taking older adults seriously), business and life in general. The nonprofit’s latest initiative comes in a light-hearted form: age-positive birthday cards. But while the medium is simple, the reach can be powerful, Breindel said.
“Birthday time is when you think about age. It’s a good opportunity to think about the little stories we’re telling or telling to other people, that are making fun of our parents or colleagues at work. A birthday card is one of the places where the story [about aging] is being told. Every place a story is being told, we have to tackle a bit.”
The idea for the birthday cards came from Laurie Brock, a long-time volunteer with Changing the Narrative.
“She was spreading the word about ageism and its harmful effects, and found on her next birthday, she received dozens of cards and none of them were ageist,” Breindel recalled. “They were all age-positive and she thought, ‘Maybe this works.’”
She approached Janine Vanderburg, director and chief catalyst of Changing the Narrative, about commissioning designers to create age-positive birthday cards to advertise on the organization’s website. In 2020, after the initial call-out to local artists, the nonprofit launched its first batch of anti-ageist birthday cards. The cards help the group carry out its mission while supporting the work of local artists.
Customers click on a card and are automatically linked to the designer’s website where they can purchase it. Changing the Narrative was only interested in getting age-positive messages out and left the creating and selling of cards up to the designers who already work in the industry.
The cards were such a hit that in 2021 Vanderburg was invited to give the keynote speech at the Greeting Card Association’s annual conference. She spoke about why Changing the Narrative cares about ageism and how messages on greeting cards can make a difference in the way society views aging.
In 2022, the nonprofit held a contest and selected a dozen more designers to create the 2023 cards.
“We wanted all of the designers to be really motivated by this cause, already have an established business and be really interested in ageism,” Breindel said.
The 2023 cards contain warm messages and beautiful artwork: quotes like “We turn not older with years, but newer every day,” by Emily Dickinson; puns, such as “Thyme brings sage wisdom” surrounded by the herbs in bloom; and positive messages like “Cheers to many more years and being the best version of you” next to a bottle of champagne bubbling over.
Breindel said changing the narrative about aging starts with each person recognizing their own ideas about aging and considering which ones might need to change. It may be as easy as replacing the words “senior citizens” with “older adults”—or even just buying a different kind of birthday card.