Aging, Agency, and Ageism

with Bob Kramer,

Founder, Nexus Insights

This week on the Art of Aging, host Rev. Beth Long-Higgins talks with Bob Kramer, Founder of Nexus Insights. In this conversation, Bob talks about his work promoting positive aged programming and addressing outdated ageist views. Beth and Bob discuss the importance of changing societal attitudes about aging, finding purpose in later life, the importance of intergenerational connections, giving back to vulnerable communities, and more.
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Highlights from this week’s conversation include:

  • Bob’s work with Nexus Insights (0:58)
  • Aging, ageism, and agency (3:25)
  • Purposeful longevity (9:43)
  • Aging magnificently (13:55)
  • Finding meaning and purpose (19:03)
  • Challenging ageist views (24:05)
  • Perspectives on aging (29:32)
  • Surprises of aging (32:12)
  • Final thoughts and connecting with Bob (36:24)


Abundant Aging is a podcast series presented by United Church Homes. These shows offer ideas, information, and inspiration on how to improve our lives as we grow older. To learn more and to subscribe to the show, visit


Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 00:07
Hello, and welcome to The Art of Aging, part of the Abundant Aging podcast series from United Church homes. And this show we look at what it means to age in America and in other places around the world with positive and empowering conversations that challenge, encourage and inspire all to age with abundance. Today, we’re talking with Bob Kramer about his work and the work of Nexus insights, and other organizations he is leading or is a part of to promote positive age programming and address outdated ages views. Hello, Bob.

Bob Kramer 00:41
Good morning, Beth, delighted to be with you today.

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 00:45
It’s great to be with you. Uh, first of all, for those who do not know about you and your work, can you share more about what you’ve been doing to address ageism, and call attention to the important issues in aging? Well, thanks,

Bob Kramer 00:58
Beth, about three years ago now, in April of 2020, I, together with a number of others launched an organization a think tank called Nexus insights. And our mission is to advance the well being of older adults through innovative models of Housing, Community and healthcare. And the idea is to really take advantage of the very disruption happening, for instance, at that time, if you think April 2020, oh, it was COVID. It was a time of disruption. We didn’t know for how long and for how much. But it certainly was, and still is today. I’m a great believer that in times of great disruption and turmoil often is when you can sort of reset a new paradigm. And so I see this as an opportunity to sort of rethink not only how we view the aging experience, but actually to therefore change the lived experience of aging and aging in America. So we have about a dozen fellows that work with me a very diverse group. Hence the name Nexus insights, that it’s at the intersection or nexus point of differing points of view, different backgrounds, different industries, that we actually get real positive, disruptive innovation that helps us think differently about a problem or an issue. In this case. Ultimately, it’s about aging, and how we think about about aging, I’m also continue to work as a strategic advisor and board member of Nic, an organization, I started back in 1991, the National Investment Center for seniors housing and care. And there, we’re basically trying to connect and educate capital to make sure that the capital is provided, since it isn’t going to be just government dollars alone, they’re going to help us to solve the issues of increased longevity, and take advantage of the opportunities of a longevity economy. So work with Nic work with Nexus insights, and then speaking and writing, and just engaging folks and engaging in settings such as this, to raise the issues that, you know, basically, even 10 years ago, would not have been raised, but now are very much forefront, which is exciting. This is a disruptive moment to be taken advantage of.

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 03:25
Thanks, Bob. Your enthusiasm for this is infectious. And it’s great that you’re with us today. So we’re going to talk at this point about the relationship between agency ageism and aging itself. So what how do those three connect and why is this so important to the conversation?

Bob Kramer 03:47
Well, a couple of things, I would say one, it’s not knocking it at all. But the reality is that much of senior living and senior housing and care has been about, we’re going to basically care for you and meet all your needs. And though that sounds on the surface, in some ways, great. And a wonderful thing. But it has led to an industry that oftentimes without realizing it is reinforcing a sense of what Bill Thomas Dr. Bill Thomas has called learned helplessness. And it reinforces a sense that I reach a certain age and at that point, I’m not good for anything, I can’t do anything for myself, and I have to rely on others to do it for me. And that actually we now know actually leads to reduce physical, mental and emotional health. And it gives us less staying power to to deal with whatever it is that each day we’ve Becca Levy. In the last year, a social psychologist at Yale released a book the H braking the age code. And the subtitle, which is really important is how you how we think about aging determines how long and well we live. And what her research has shown and others is that basically, if you have a what I’ll call a positive view about aging and the aging experience, you’re statistically likely to live seven and a half years longer, and the quality of that life will be much greater. And so we need to move away from a sense that you reach a certain point, I would say in our society used to be 65, many would say it’s now 75. But at that point, in a sense, you’re finished, you’re done. And it’s just society’s role to care for you, while you sort of wait in the twilight zone, and try and fill your bucket list before you kick the bucket. And we need to really change that. Ashton Applewhite, who’s really good with great quotable one liners about aging, and ageism, has said that ageism is prejudice against our future selves. I think that’s a great statement. And so true. And we’re as a nation now, and, and as a world in many developed countries. But as a nation, we used to have the classic demographic pyramid, meaning the most folks were young, they were at the bottom, that was the bottom of the pyramid. And at the top, the fewest number, those were older adults. Now, we actually have a cylinder. And we’ve never had that before. And that has enormous implications. What do I mean by that? Well, by in just a few years, by 2030, we’ll have as many people over age 65, as we have under age 18. That’s a cylinder. But as I say, to many of the students, that I teach at the graduate and undergraduate level are the ones who have the most at stake in changing societal attitudes about aging, are those that are the youngest. Why? Because for me, I’m 73, about to turn 74. It’s too late to change societal attitudes for how my ag experiences view. But folks in their 20s, they’re statistically likely half of them to live to 100. And if they’re in college or grad school, more than half of them are statistically liable to live past 100. And the only folks that have more at stake are the generation coming after them, their children. And why is this important? Because as a society, we confine aging adults, basically, to a sense of what I call social, cultural and economic irrelevance. And if you’re going to live to 100, and irrelevant starts at 65. That’s 35 years of living a life where you’re irrelevant, because you don’t have any positive contributions to make. That’s depressing. And we have to change that as a country, our economy, our social fabric, our sense of community. I think one of the greatest opportunities to address the fractures in our society today is going to be through multi generational, intergenerational both communication and action. And that excites me.

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 08:37
Yeah, absolutely. A couple of things. Just kind of going back to a couple of your statements there. It is interesting when I go, and I talk to groups, and I talk about this change how we have to change the way we think about aging. And now when people just kind of look at me with a blank stare, like what do you mean, how I think about aging, and then as we take a look and kind of dig down into what we’ve absorbed ourselves about the stereotypes about those general attitudes eras talking about, they begin to realize, oh, yeah, I guess I do have a view about what aging is. And your point that, you know, the younger generation has a bigger stake in this because of the societal changes that need to happen. That’s absolutely true. But it’s also true that even for those of us who are in the later part of life, if we change our attitudes now that’s going to affect our own selves, and that we in turn can help to lay the groundwork for the larger societal changes that need to happen. Yeah,

Bob Kramer 09:43
absolutely. And, you know, the people that most inspire me about aging abundantly and magnificently are folks that I have met in the countless visits that I’ve made to differing life plan communities CC CRCS retirement communities, whatever you want to call them, who are, in most cases 10 to 20 years older than I am, but they are determined to, I would say, have purposeful longevity. What do I mean by that? What I mean by that is, they’re, they don’t want just to live longer, they want to live better. And that means living with purpose. And we’re all wired differently. Different things give us a sense of purpose, it may be an issue. Oftentimes, it comes down to personal relationships. But those relationships are no less important, I would argue or eat, we value them all the more as we get older. But purposeful longevity is something that I think my generation has an opportunity to set an example with, as we sort of shift from, you know, I believe the greatest generation, they had what I call accidental longevity, they never expected to live as long as they did. My father in law, Sam, World War Two Army veteran, and 89, when he was 89, we were visiting the war rooms in the Churchill Museum in London. And he turned to me at one point after he was explaining the different types of bombs and the sounds and because he was stationed just outside London, prior to D Day, and he was explaining to me which ones scared you took cover and which ones you weren’t worried about. And then after that, he turned to me. And he said, Bob, can you believe I’m still alive. And he was just, you know, he was a D Day veteran, he retired early as a school teacher at 62. Because he had a heart attack, and who he was at 89. And he was just like, wow, this is incredible. I have this long life. I never thought I’d live this long. And that’s wonderful. But it’s accidental longevity. I think my generation has the opportunity to have purposeful longevity. And to set an example on that. What gives us purpose? And how do we rather than lose purpose? How do we basically build on and in some instances, rediscover that sense of purpose? As we get older, when we don’t have the natural things, raising kids or our job or our career? Then how do we think about what gives me what the Japanese call iki guy got a sense of purpose that that reason, translated somewhat literally, that reasonably get up for breakfast? If we have that. It’s amazing. The quality of life we can have in longevity without it. It’s kind of a drag. And it’s sad that I think some boomers look at increased longevity as a drag. Because they’ve lost that sense of purpose. Yeah, absolutely.

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 13:05
I, what I encourage I used to call them aging heroes, I encourage people to identify who are there who your aging heroes. And I’m changing that to saying Who are your abundant aging influencers? You know, these are the folks who you look at and you say, Man, Jack, when I’m Jack’s age, I want to have the same amount of curiosity and willingness to learn, you know, or when I’m Marion’s age. And so who are those folks that that are aging ahead of us? And it’s not that they’ve got everything right. And it’s not that I want to have their lives. But like you said, they, they understand what their purpose is. And for all of us how we express that purpose, that’s going to change as we age as well, because our bodies are changing, as well as our perspective as we reflect on the experiences that we’ve had. Yeah,

Bob Kramer 13:55
well, I think one of the key things to your point, our bodies are changing. We can’t be either naive or pollyannish, about getting older. And many people, the phrase I’ve often heard for people in sort of talking about whatever physical challenge they’ve gone through, well, Getting old ain’t for sissies. And, and there’s truth in that. But I think with the truth in that, I mean, my wife and I laugh and you know, when we’re asked about this or that physical challenge that we have all the normal aches, pains and inconveniences that come with our advanced wisdom and maturity. And yes, these things come together and you can’t, you can’t live in denial. Just as you would plan for anything and you make plans when you have a family and you’re raising kids. You also have to make plans as you’re getting older. And you have to think about well, this setting that’s been good to me. Will it continue to be the right setting for me? Am I going to be a Well to continue most easily to do the things I want to do to see the people I want to see, am I going to be able to stay engaged, even though I may not drive, or mobility issues may be much more challenging for me. And so this kind of planning magnificently does not mean aging without a plan. And it does not mean just simply having a sunny disposition.

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 15:28
I love that phrase aging magnificently. Absolutely. You know, how do we embrace the changes as they happen, and not let them rule the day, I, when I was in college, I worked in the Dean’s office and have stayed connected with Dean Wilson over the years. And he shared many years ago that when they would, he and his wife would be in Florida, and they would gather former faculty who would also be in Florida in the winter, and they’d all get together, he had a rule, and it was something like 20 minutes. For the first 20 minutes they were together, they could talk about aches and pains and the physical challenges of aging. And that was it. It’s like, okay, we have him, let’s talk about him. But there is lot of other stuff in life for us to talk about. And so let’s move the conversation on so yeah, absolutely.

Bob Kramer 16:15
It’s sort of it’s an issue. I mean, we see the same issue today, whether it’s thinking about kids, or, frankly, anybody any age, what do you fill your mind in your heart with. And you know, if you fill it with things that are depressing, or if you fill it with things that are scary, then you end up in a very fearful anticipating the worst situation. And there certainly, that’s real, those things are out there. But it doesn’t mean that those things have to define who we are or what our life is.

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 16:51
Absolutely. But I’m going to change the topic just a little bit, because it’s a part of both of our background. And one of the things that I struggle with is a you know, engaged in these conversations. And I’m, you know, here Ashton, and you know, reading Becker’s book, and Tracy Anderson’s book, I filter everything through the lens of my training, to be a minister, and theological training. And I also recognize that the church has absorbed the cultural attitudes about aging. And yet, in the Judeo Christian background, this, those ageist views about aging are really antithetical to theologically the grounding of our faith. How do we help to kind of move back to that understanding, and ground that are in our theological backgrounds?

Bob Kramer 17:52
It’s a great question, Beth. And thank you for raising it, as one who myself trained and started out in the pastor it and read Theology at Oxford, and so forth, let me say that, first and foremost, I think in the Judeo Christian tradition, the sense that we are each created in the image of God, and we bear that image in us. And that image in us is not just when we’re able to walk and run magnificently, and, and don’t need any makeup and have our full head of hair, or whatever it is, we never lose that image SNESs. And so we may express that image newness and learn new and different ways to express it. I think one of the most exciting things about the field of aging is people discovering new ways to express who they are, and their sense of purpose that are outside. We’ve never had a lane or put another way as Susan Golden’s written recently written about it in her book stage, not age, we’ve never thought about the stage. That is post traditional retirement age, but maybe for some people a third of their life, and how to think about that. And related to that, is the whole sense of purpose matchmaking. And that is how we find that sense of purpose for us, you know, an example that that I love. I mean, he’s just one of many wonderful examples I heard from, of actions by residence during COVID. And one example I’ll give to briefly One example was John, who was a dining room server was seen and had always been in this life playing community working there for years and usually was very upbeat, a scene downcast and the one of the residents asked him why and he said he was just so frustrated. He was an immigrant he’d been trying for years to save for and to take the citizenship exam. But he just felt both the cost and the ability to have the time to study for it was just kept getting further and further away. Well, fast that resident said, gee, we ought to be able to do something about that in this community. And fast forward. Today. 149 employees in this nonprofit, Goodwin, living community based outside of DC 149 immigrants have now either gotten their citizenship or on the path to citizenship in a program that has been funded and staffed by the residence, who raised the $10,000 per person with the help from the administration, and then provided coordinated with the administration, again, of the company, to get the time to do the tutoring for each of these immigrants, so they could pass assistantship with bot tests, which by the way, many of us would not be able to pass. And so 149 immigrants are now either had become US citizens, or on the path to it. But more importantly, everyone there has a sense of purpose. The residents have a sense of purpose the overall community does, it is obviously helping their job applications and people want to work there. And the staff feels like these residents care for us. They’re invested in our lives. Another example was is a community where, again, a resident in a lifeline community was talking to one of her favorite carriage and asking her, you know, what was life like for her in the midst of COVID. And what, you know, she was amazed that you’re getting up and you’re coming here. And she said, Well, my greatest concern are my kids, they’re at home now. And they’re not learning at all. And so again, this woman said, Gee, most everyone in this community and all has college degrees, we have graduate degrees, and many of us have taught in MIT different ways or another long story short, they started a program where first of all, they got donated the iPads for the staffs children at home. Then they set up a training program for both the residents and the kids to learn how to use them. And then the resident started doing it online tutoring service for the staffs, kids who we’re not learning. And again, that’s, that goes from, let me use this illustration. Many times today, in our culture, we still see old people as the problem. This recast older adults as problem solvers. They’re taking advantage of their wisdom, their experience and their ability to be problem solvers. I think nothing gives you a sense of purpose more than being a problem solver. And to me, that’s exciting.

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 23:19
Yeah, abs. Yeah, absolutely. And meaning and purpose as a spiritual issue. You know, it’s a spiritual, it is connected to our connection with the holy and the sacred, and to our connection with each other and creation. And yeah, absolutely. Marriage, Catherine Bateson, she was a proponent of calling this stage of life, the stage of act of wisdom. And she talked about, you know, when we come to the stage, we all have experience on top of experience on top of experience. And so in this stage is when we reflect on those experiences, we learn from them, and then we engage, finding what those challenges are in the world around us and applying those lessons that we’ve learned. So yeah, absolutely.

Bob Kramer 24:05
And I think one of the challenges again, back to our earlier discussion about learned helplessness is to, for instance, many retirement communities, they ask questions, which yes, they’re important, what kind of assistance do you need with activities of daily living? And how many prescription medications do you take? And, you know, these sorts of things? And what’s your ability to afford moving into our community? I’m not saying they’re not important, but they’re not the real no one’s identity is wrapped up in the answers to those questions. And the questions we need to be asking is, what are your goals for moving into our community? What gifts and talents who would you like to bring to contribute to this community? What are ways in which you want to grow? What do you want to learn? So rather than, you know, what have you lost? says that we need to compensate for by doing for you. Rather, what contribution? Are you ready to make now? How do you want to learn and to grow. And it’s a completely different mindset. It may sound trivial, but it’s not trivial at all. Something that really always gets me is I’m visiting a community for older adults. And the executive director stops and introduces me to a resident and says, This is Mrs. Smith, or this is Mr. Jones, they used to do this and puts it in the past tense. And that just bugs the heck out of me, it’s like, and then I always will immediately respond to the resident. Tell me, what sorts of things do you do here today? In other words, it’s amazing how we can actually talk about people to their face in the past tense, that is destructive. That’s now we can see, we can be proud of and recognize accomplishments and expertise and wisdom. But the question needs to be then praised in the present. What are you presently doing? What are you presently doing with that what you have, and that’s how we counter what I would call the American greeting card vision of getting older, which is totally negative and totally focuses on deficits and loss.

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 26:32
I wouldn’t call it a vision, I’d call it a nightmare. Well, I agree. And the other thought that comes to mind, Bob is, you know, recognizing that there, there are a whole heck of a lot of people who do not ever move into any kind of senior housing. So how are we asking those questions for people? Who say I’m gonna, I’m gonna stay in my own home? And I’m not ever moving? And how do we help ask those same kinds of questions? Okay, so what is it in your own home at this stage of your life that that is giving you purpose that’s helping you to? Is your home a barrier? Or is it helping you to participate in the larger community? And we? And so we need to be asking that, for folks who aren’t in that mode.

Bob Kramer 27:18
Absolutely. Yeah. And I think also, that part of asking that is, is to asking the question, which is important to ask. And that is, were you not to be as mobile as you presently are? Were you not to feel as comfortable driving at night, and you have a key community group, a Bible study, or a card game, a poker game, or whatever it might be? That is just people you really enjoy and look forward to seeing well, if mobility reasons meant, that was much harder? How would you make that adjustment? And so for all of us, it’s a matter of saying, what are the things that give me the most joy? What are the relationships that mean the most to me? What are the activities that mean the most to me? Well, what would if I were to have a change in my mobility, or whatever? How would that affect those activities? Am I in the right place for me, the majority of people are never going to move into, quote, a retirement community. But just saying, I’m going to age in place, if you don’t have a plan, that usually ends badly. Again, one of my fellows, Dr. Bill Thomas, at Nexus likes to say, we may love our home. But as we get older, our home may not love us back. And I think that’s just it’s just an important reality. And so anticipating that’s hard a good planning just as you want to plan when you raise kids, and you plan for the different ages and stages of that. So too, you want to plan for as you’re getting older, how can I maximize the relationships, the activities, and the purpose giving a life that I have, when I may not have the mobility or even the cognitive level that I had before?

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 29:13
Yeah, thanks. Well, Bob, we could keep talking forever. But I’m aware of where we’ve time and one thing that we like to do when we come to the end of our podcast is to ask our guests three questions about your own perspective on aging. So are you ready for the three? Ready, go? Okay. Question number one, when you think about how you’ve aged, what do you think has changed about you or grown with you that you really like about yourself? Now?

Bob Kramer 29:44
I’d have to say I’ve become more aware of how much I don’t know, in my younger years, you you tend to latch on to a perspective or an insight and think it is the perspective or the Insight and understanding how much not only you, no matter how much you know, there’s still a lot you don’t know. And on a particular issue, how much understanding and appreciating diverse perspectives on that issue. It doesn’t necessarily doesn’t mean it’s going to change where you land on something. But it gives you a fuller, deeper understanding of that issue and an appreciation for people that see it differently than you do. And I think that, that sense of certainty, as opposed to that openness to I can learn from people that think differently, I view things differently than I do. And it doesn’t undermine who I am or what I think or what I believe it actually enriches it. And so that, to me, is one of the biggest differences. I’m, my wife. And I often laugh at ourselves in this but in, you know, as folks that really grew up through the 60s, we were very righteous, but we were actually very self righteous. And that perspective, today, I found really important to maintain. And so, you know, to be able to realize that in all our passion, in 68, and 69, and 70, and so forth, there was a lot of self righteousness, which meant our inability to really see others and see the very folks we were saying needed to change and understand what motivated them and what scared them and so on and so forth. And so that’s what I’d say on that one, Beth.

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 31:49
Thank you that I think that’s wisdom right there. And I don’t remember who said it, but the phrase that comes to mind is, don’t seek to be interesting. Seek to be interested. Yeah. Yeah, kind of being interested and interested in the next thing. And the next thing. Okay, question number two, what has surprised you most, as you have aged?

Bob Kramer 32:12
I think probably what surprised me most is, when I was much younger, I had a very naive, uninformed view of getting older. And I mean, you know, my wife and I often we had a moment when we were out, back at my alma mater, and we were folks that were back for their 50s and 60s, reunions, and kind of saying, Oh, how quaint, you know, wonderful, you know, we were kind of imagining ourselves in such a role, and we were having a hard time, quite frankly, imagining it. And that were those folks today, you know, that, you know, I recently went back for my delayed because of COVID 50th. college reunion. And so, but what I mean by that is a I didn’t expect to live this long. But more importantly, this robustly this with, you know, intellectually, I’ve just felt like I’ve never been as on fire, as I am now. And I’m so excited about that. Well, if you’d asked me as you’re approaching at 25, how I thought I’d be at age 75. It would not have been really excited about what new ideas and new insights I will have, I would have thought, I’m finished, I’m done. And, you know, I hope my kids or my grandkids are taking good care of me, and I’m not drooling too much. And that probably would have been my perception 50 years ago, quite honestly. So I’ve discovered a whole new world. Put simply,

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 34:01
I’m glad you’ve proved your 25 year old son self. And then getting back to something we talked about a little while ago. The third question, is there someone that you’ve met or you’ve worked with that has been Your abundant aging influencer, that has set an example for you? That you would say, Yeah, I want to be like that person.

Bob Kramer 34:24
It’s not one person. I mean, I’ve been so fortunate. The fellows with me at Nexus insights, two thirds of them are a generation younger than me, but they give me insights about aging every day and about myself. But I would say harking back to earlier comments, we had the love visiting with folks that are 15 to 20 years older than I am, and are super excited about things that they’re presently doing. And particularly, you know, I’m sort of a serial of social entrepreneur in terms of starting organizations around issues that I’m passionate about. And I love seeing this in folks that have started or at times new organizations are taking on a cause. Or, for instance, one huge issue our country is facing, that so many in my generation have an opportunity to address and that is, some of the most vulnerable in our society and those in poverty are struggling to stay out of poverty. COVID had a disproportionate impact on them and their families. And we have so many kids who are in essence, because of COVID, last two to three years of educational development. And in their case, ever getting that back is going to I mean, it just it compounds, a sort of cycle. And so how, how my generation can give back to these very young people and children, the mentoring those, the volunteering and mentoring, this educational deficit, if it’s not made up will have an enormous impact on our society for the next 50 years. And I don’t see government programs solving that.

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 36:24
Thank you, Bob, for sharing your infectious enthusiasm and your wisdom with us today. And thank you to our listeners for listening to this episode of The Art of aging, part of the abundant aging podcast series for United Church homes. And we want to hear from you what’s changed about you as you’ve aged, that you love. What has surprised you about your own aging process? And how do you define abundant aging? And who is your abundant aging hero? Join us at abundant aging to share your ideas. You can also give us feedback when you visit the Ruth Pross Parker Center website at United Church backslash Parker hyphen center. And Bob, where can people find you to be in conversation?

Bob Kramer 37:10
They can find me easily LinkedIn, they can find me at Nexus They can also find So those are all places. I welcome people reach out to me again at Nexus And it’s been a pleasure to be able to have this discussion and to co laborers and CO conspirators in the aging revolution. Thanks. Yes.

Rev. Beth Long-Higgins 37:39
Thank you, Bob.