Susan Donley with Dr. Barb
Susan Donley is publisher and CEO of Stria, a new media platform for the “longevity market” launched in March 2018. Stria provides information, experiences and content that inspire cross-sector solutions for our aging society, providing a foundation of understanding and insight for longevity professionals. Previously, she served as publisher and managing director of Next Avenue, a national public media service for America’s booming older population. In 2015, she founded Next Avenue’s Influencers in Aging, an annual list of people changing aging in America. She was recognized for her leadership with the 2017 What’s Next Boomer Business Innovation Award for media.
Barb: We at MiddlesexMD first crossed paths with Susan Donley when she was leading Next Avenue, the first and only public media’s national resource for the boomer population. Since then she’s begun a new venture, which you’ll hear more about. It supports her mission of improving the lives of older people through powerful media and impactful communications. Welcome Susan!
Susan: Thank you. Thanks so much for having me.
Barb: So let’s start with your background. You’ve had a career in media and communications, and I know you’ve been involved with PBS, including some of my favorites like Ken Burns’ “Civil War,” and PBS Kids, and “Masterpiece Theater,” and most recently you were publisher and managing editor at Next Avenue, which served over 45 million readers. So was it that experience that led you to focus on those of us who are 50 and older?
Susan: Yeah, it really was. Throughout my career I worked in non-profit strategy, and communications and public media, but I didn’t really have a single area of focus. So I worked in public health and homelessness, obviously all kinds of programming like some of the shows on PBS that you mentioned. But working on the research and development phase for Next Avenue was really my first introduction to issues of aging. And then leading the site for four years really sort of got me firmly rooted in the field, which I love – I’m so passionate about it, and I will stay in it for the rest of my career.
Barb: So you launched Stria earlier this year, and that’s with a focus on what was new terminology to me: the longevity market. That’s different from what we in healthcare might term geriatrics – at least it seems like maybe it’s a bit different from that term, which strikes me that may be a better term than geriatrics could have been discovered along the way. So, what do you mean by this longevity market, and how will Stria be integrating that or intersecting with that?
Susan: This is often the first question I get when I’m asked about Stria, and I love that, because it tells me that we’re hitting the scene early. So there’s a ton of good that we’re going to be able to do. I think most people know that the demographic shifts in our country have really created unprecedented convergence of need and opportunity in our society, and there also is an increasing demand for innovative solutions from entrepreneurs and businesses. So emerging from this set of unique conditions is what we are calling the longevity market.
Our definition really begins with the core needs of people over 50. There are obviously many desires and potentials surrounding life as you grow old: money and security issues, issues of health and longevity, caregiving, learning and connection, purpose, even spirituality and identity. If your work supports any of these aspects of life for older people, you’re part of the longevity market. What Stria works to do is to unify all of those multiple lines of business and service and study and research that define the field and surface the issues from out of those silos, so that no matter what part of the field you work in, you have exposure to the ideas that matters most. Ultimately, I really believe in the power of media to fill the role of a convener and to make a difference in the world. Stria’s mission is to provide information and content and experiences that will inspire cross-sector solutions for an aging society.
Barb: Will Stria actually bring individuals together? Is there a way that they will connect as well, or is it informational?
Susan: Stria is certainly a virtual community. We hope that – we like to elevate our readers’ thoughts and perspectives, and we get essays and interviews from leaders, so there’s a virtual convening that happens every day at Strianews.com, which is where our original journalism resides. But in addition, we have a line of business called Stria Live, which are some executive-level, small, live-event convenings where we bring together a curated set of folks to have a purposeful conversation that moves progress forward on a single issue. Mostly it’s a virtual convening, but we also will have live events.
Barb: What would you see as the two or three most important areas to address for this longevity market?
Susan: When I was a publisher of Next Avenue, I had the great good fortune of getting to know many of the leaders who have been working and aging, and I heard several concerns that our field was too siloed, that ideas sometimes seem slow to advance, that problems often feel intractable, and that we are continuing to talk about them over and over. At the same time, the urgency of the demographic shifts were only intensifying. So the macro issue that Stria seeks to address is really that fragmented nature of our field. Especially as we are seeing new businesses enter the space, we want to assure that those folks have access to the incredible legacy of study and understanding that exists around aging.
But when it comes to the most important needs of older folks themselves, as opposed to the field of longevity, the list is incredibly long. What has been most prominent in my mind right now is that we are really seeing sort of a tale of two kinds of aging. There are some folks who are aging successfully – and they are doing great – while others are really being left behind. There are these hidden folks, literally hidden – isolated in their apartments or in their communities – but also metaphorically hidden. And the thing that strikes me as significant is that these aren't the people that you would necessarily expect. There are middle class, or even upper middle class people who are expecting to make a smooth transition into aging who are finding themselves in trouble. One unexpected event – loss of a job, something going on with housing, a health crisis – can really push them teetering over the edge. So bringing some of those hidden people out of the shadows, and finding ways to create more stability among people from sort of all walks of life I think is a really critical issue right now.
Barb: How or who helps bring these people out of the shadows, as you stated?
Susan: I think interestingly, there are many women in particular who fit into this hidden category. I don’t know if you are familiar with Elizabeth White’s fantastic book. It’s called Fifty-Five, Unemployed, and Faking Normal. I really recommend it. It is Elizabeth’s own story. She is an incredibly bright, well-educated, well-employed woman who found herself single and unemployed in her 50s. Rather than admitting to her friends and family that she was in financial struggle, she faked it. She would try and present the face that she was doing fine and living in the lifestyle that she had been living all along, while in fact, she was really in crisis. And some of the issues that are related to aging and ageism were having a direct impact on her life. For those women or men who are able to step forward and claim their space as Elizabeth was able to do in her book, I think that’s one really important way to get people out of the shadows.
In addition, I think that the people who work in the aging space – community organizations, governments, and so forth – it’s really our obligation to find out what is actually happening with folks and go get them, sometimes literally knock on their front doors and bring them out of isolation.
Barb: What kinds of organizations are you reaching out to and interacting with?
Susan: With Stria, we are really for and about the entire aging ecosystem. It’s a very broad set of folks within the longevity market. Right now we are about – one-third of our readership is nonprofits and associations; the traditional people working in aging. We are about one-third businesses and entrepreneurs – so folks who see a market opportunity and want to leverage that; and then about one-third are the consultants and agencies and vendors who are serving the field. So we are trying to keep a good balance between all the different kinds of folks whose work influences aging.
Barb: It’s interesting to think about because in my clinical practice in women’s health, which is primarily focussed on perimenopause/menopausal women, which sort of by definition is 45 or 50 and older, so that’s the vast majority of the women I see day to day, and it is an interesting time of discovery and journey, and it doesn’t all go well. I’m always struck by this idea that I think most people anticipate getting to that stage of life it’s going to be an achievement, and you’ve worked hard, and you’ve watched children, and you’ve had some accomplishments, and then here you are with a lot of uncertainties, both professionally and personally and in relationships. I have wondered and have had many patients ask about what are the resources? Are there support groups? How do I navigate this? Who can help me? Do I have some skills and gifts I didn’t know how to use before but maybe I could discover now? So is Stria the kind of organization that could help give resources or answers to those people who really don’t know how to successfully move forward and feel like they are making the most of the years ahead?
Susan: Yeah, the phenomenon that you are talking about is something that I see all of the time. Particularly while I was at Next Avenue, our readers expressed just exactly those kinds of concerns, and across the board the idea of creating opportunities for older people at any point in their aging – you know a 50-year old or a 70-year old – to be able to find purpose and meaning and access ways to be productive and give back is an ongoing and significant issue. Stria is trade-media, so we’re really for the folks who work to develop those kinds of programs. The average consumer might find Stria interesting if you’re, you know, sort of an aging nerd [laughs], but we are not a direct-to-consumer resource.
Barb: Okay, so that makes sense. So you are going to help create in my community the resources that might make people like me be more successful as I seek out the resources I need to continue to age successfully.
Susan: Exactly. So if in your community someone wants to create a new community organization that connects, let's say, women heading into retirement, with new inter-generational volunteer opportunities (I’m making this up). The person leading that organization would be wise to subscribe to Stria so that they would have access to really an executive summary of what’s happening across the field. What do they need to understand about older consumers, about the way that the aging ecosystem is put together, and about the other kinds of programs that exist so that they can create the best program possible to deliver in your community.
Barb: I love that your passion about depicting honestly what older really looks like, and it is I think parallel to my own mission. Actually I just saw a woman yesterday in her early 70s who had been widowed. And in my field of practice, which includes sexual health, I’m always inspired by women like the woman I saw yesterday who is pursuing a relationship. Our discussion was around what this was going to look like and what this meant for her sexually. I’m just curious, more broadly, what are some of the stereotypes and misperceptions that you have become aware of for those who are 70 versus 30?
Susan: Yeah, I think the biggest misconception is that older people are often sort of lumped into one homogenous group. So someone thinking about older people are lumping together a 50-year old woman and an 80-year old man. Obviously those are two very different people with very different needs. But for some reason there’s a sort of conception that once you hit a certain number in your chronology that you become part of a special class that is all of the same.
The thing that I find, is that ageism is really the root problem that lurks behind every stereotype or misconception. The more specific ones: old people can’t use technology; old people don’t seek out new brands – all of that day-to-day stereotyping of older people is driven by the inherent ageism in our society and in our own selves.
Barb: What’s the process of moving beyond that? Is it new language? Is it new conversations? How do you envision removing some of those stereotypes?
Susan: I think the answer is yes. It’s everything. I’m always surprised. I had the opportunity to talk about ageism with groups of folks, and the more you talk about it and you start to hear examples of ageism, you can sort of see a light turn on. All of a sudden there’s this realization that this ageism is everywhere. I think about in mainstream media, like late night or on Twitter, there are jokes about sort of at older people's’ expenses. You know, ha ha ha about diapers and canes and hip breaks. It’s something that we just gloss over and sort of take as a given, even back, I don’t know, 20 years ago the over-the-hill parties. It’s entrenched everywhere. So I think the first thing that is most important is becoming aware of it.
Now that I fully see ageism, I catch myself even, saying things. Even things that are intended to be pro-aging or for older people, are sometimes packaged in ageist language. For example, there are so many things with Granny as a descriptor. Granny Pods are the tiny houses that older women can live in I guess on their family’s properties. There was an activism group that was pro-gun restrictions and they called themselves Grannies. I think that that language can be really harmful, even without meaning to. The other language example that is a particular pet peeve of mine is in the news media, the phenomenon of shifting demographics is often called the Silver Tsunami. Silver – sort of a double whammy – silver is a euphemism because heaven forbid we actually say “aging,” and tsunami is a catastrophic national disaster that brings death and destruction. What a way to describe the literally millions of productive citizens that are in our country!
I think it starts with perception and then language, storytelling – it’s the same as really any change in the way a society thinks. It’s incremental. The difference of course, with ageism, is that it’s a class of which everyone will become a member if you’re lucky. It’s especially ironic because there’s no one who doesn’t want to end up being a part of this group that we still talk down to and about every day.
Barb: Yes, that’s fascinating when you think about it that way [laughs]. It is somewhat inexplicable I guess when you speak about it in that way that this is where we have found ourselves culturally. Is this true in other cultures as well do you think? Is it unique to our culture?
Susan: Ageism expresses itself uniquely in American culture, but it is not unique to our country at all. The aging of the population, in fact, is far ahead in other countries. So they are dealing with the implications of an aging society well in advance of where we are. But ageism unfortunately is everywhere.
Barb: How do assumptions and stereotypes affect product design for older people?
Susan: It’s interesting. There’s a movement now for folks in the field that is sort of a trend of designing with older customers as opposed to for older customers. The sort of mantra is “nothing about me without me.” We found that there are well-meaning innovators trying to solve problems that they saw in older people’s lives for older people without really understanding what those people need and want. The result, not surprisingly, was that the products failed and the lesson was misinterpreted as “old people can’t use technology.” In truth, the product wasn’t designed for that specific customer. It didn’t work for them, and so it failed. It was a failure of the product, not a failure of the customer. I can’t think of another area in which the customer is blamed for not adopting a product that doesn’t work for them. But this is what happens in product design for older folks. If they don’t adopt this, we say, “Well, they don’t know what they’re doing.”
Fortunately, that is starting to change, and there are examples of businesses who are getting it right. In fact, just this week, GreatCall – the company that makes an array of technology for seniors including the Jitterbug phone which is that big-button phone – GreatCall was acquired by Best Buy this week. And the CEO of GreatCall is David Inns. He is someone who is really dedicated to understanding the needs of his customer. He’s creating products, and has for years, that work for them. The result was an 800-million-dollar acquisition this week. So there is proof that when you do it right, there’s success to be had and there’s real money to be made in this market.
Barb: Yeah, I would imagine that to be true. It’s really heartening to hear that because when you hear about the financial power of this group of individuals you would think that many companies would be engaging that population to help create solutions.
Susan: It’s shocking how little that has happened in the past. But the great news is that the AARP estimated the value of the market at 7.8 trillion dollars, and businesses are starting to see the value. There’s just money to be made, and so they are going to have to get it right in order to seize that opportunity. So we are starting to see improvements.
Barb: Given the broad view you’ve had of culture at both Next Avenue and Stria, what advice would you give – to women in particular – about advocating for ourselves?
Susan: You know I think that my advice – maybe it’s a little simple – but I don’t think that we all need to be revolutionaries who are aging here. My advice would be to sort of start where you live and look to your community and see if there are ways that you can advocate for improvements locally. You can find out if your city has any age-friendly initiatives. The age-friendly movement was created by the World Health Organization and is supported in the States by AARP, and it is city or county or state-wide efforts to make the places that we live better for aging. The results of age-friendly work, by the way, improve the entire community. Businesses get more traction, real estate value goes up, everyone can live better in an age-friendly city. If there’s age-friendly where you live, get involved.
I, myself, am involved in the DC Age-Friendly Task Force. You can look to the Village Movement. If you’re not familiar, the Village Movement, it’s been around for a while, but it’s gaining in popularity. Sort of a membership-driven, grassroots organizations that are run by volunteers – sometimes there’s a paid-staff member – but they are coordinating access to services and volunteering opportunities for things like transportation, health and wellness programs, or home repairs. So checking into villages where you live can be a great way.
And then I also think just for yourself even, just start to open your mind to new ideas about what it might look like to grow older. I think looking into tech training opportunities; if you need help learning how to set up your iPhone – certainly get that – but there are also opportunities; you know, learn how to set up a story on Etsy and sell your whatever – knitting. Or learn how to upload your digital photography and make scrapbooks for your grandkids if you have them. I think finding opportunities for intergenerational programs, those programs – study after study has shown that intergenerational programs are amazing for the kids, amazing for the adult, and improve the community at the same time. You can make art. Again, studies show that participating in the arts, especially music, is incredibly good for your cognitive health. I think everyone would be singing in a choir if we all had exposure to that data.
Ultimately, it’s not about aging; it’s about living your life. You don’t have to set up an advocacy program. Just get out there! There are literally millions of women over 50 forging the path of what it is going to look like to grow older in this country. I say, “You’re not alone. Just go for it!”
Barb: Yeah, great! Thank you for those words of encouragement.
Susan: I also should add on a more practical level, if you haven’t started planning for your own long-term care needs, get on that! The one practical thing that everyone should be doing is thinking about how they are going to care for themselves as they are aging. It’s a looming crisis, so that is the one sort of more practical thing I would advise.
Barb: As a health care provider, I will thank you for that input as well because certainly as you mention it is a growing crisis and not going to be changing imminently, so plan ahead, as you said.
Where do you personally find richness at your current stage of life, Susan?
Susan: You know it’s interesting because my work in aging has changed the way I think about aging. I’m certainly more focused on planning for the future in a realistic way. I’m more aware of the possible contingencies. We’re not all going to be healthy and independent until 88, and then we pass in our sleep. So I’m more aware that I’m going to need help, and I’m more dedicated to thinking about how would I design the life that would make me happy, but also give me all the support and care that I need.
I have to admit that I am not as far along in my financial planning as I should be, but I am certainly more aware of it. I feel more guilty about it every day, thanks to my work. In general, though, I’m less concerned about the external “stuff” of aging. I was at a meeting, and it was primarily women, and we were asked to say our age, and there were so many women who were uncomfortable saying the number. I don’t want to feel ashamed of myself because of something as meaningless as chronology. That number just doesn’t say very much about who we are as people. That ageism – I just won’t be defined by the stereotype.
There’s a quote actually from Dolly Parton – or credited to Dolly Parton. She says, “I don’t worry about the dumb blonde jokes because I know I’m not dumb. I also know I’m not blonde.” That’s really how I think about aging.
Barb: I think those are really great words because there is something about the number that I think plays a bigger role than it should for many individuals. Thank you so much for your time today, Susan.
Susan: Yeah, thank you. It was a great conversation, and it’s wonderful that you’re putting these kinds of discussions out there. This is the authentic reality of our lives, and talking about it in honest and authentic ways is how we’re going to make things change.
Barb: Yes, I’m excited that there is real effort being put into the thoughtfulness and intention around providing more success.
Susan: Yeah, it’s fun. Those of us who work in the longevity market are lucky people. I’m really proud to be a part of it.