With people now living much longer, elder care is an issue growing in national importance with each passing year. And surprisingly, it’s also a trend the youth-obsessed media are slowly catching up to.
"It tends to be an underreported story that always gets a huge reader response," notes Elizabeth Pope, a Portland, ME-based freelancer who contributes aging and retirement stories to Time, The New York Times, the LA Times, and other outlets. "As [former First Lady] Rosalynn Carter has said, 'We're becoming a nation of caregivers.'"
Paul Kleyman, editor of Aging Today who also runs the Journalists Exchange on Aging, estimates there are currently about 100 reporters who cover aging and elder care either as a main beat or as a regular sub-beat. But, "I'm hearing from reporters that it's still tough to get editors to commit to stories about those over 70," Kleyman adds. "And even when you do get a story, editors want to squeeze it down or have the reporters take the idea and turn it into a chart."
However, many outlets are interested in stories aimed at the adult children of the elderly. "I get regular calls from reporters doing stories on how boomers can help their aging parents," says Lauren Shaham, director of media relations for the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging.
To their credit, when reporters do get a chance to write about elder care, most are striving to move beyond numbers-driven public policy debates. "Reporters definitely want real-world examples," Shaham notes. "When I'm trying to pitch a story, especially outside of Washington, what I tell a reporter is, 'I can provide you with national policy experts, as well as local residents who are impacted by this policy.'"
But even those real-world stories often get sugar-coated. "The biggest problem when dealing with editors, especially in the magazine industry, is their sensitivity to advertisers; everything has to be positive and upbeat," Pope says. "I had a healthcare editor tell me, 'Send me a 1,200-word story on an elder-care trend, but do not mention a disease.'"
Dealing with a senior's last years may be a bit of a bittersweet topic, but Steven Hahn, manager of media services for AARP, predicts the media will be compelled to pay more attention to elder care going forward. "With boomers beginning to turn 65 in 2011, you're going to see a real emergence of these types of stories simply because these issues are going to affect more and more people," he says.
PITCHING... Elder Care
Target adult children. Elder care is being covered more as a family/work life issue, so pitch practical, positive advice that can help families make caregiving decisions
Humanize the story by offering reporters real-world families who can provide a face for the elder-care public policy debates
Pitch the demographic trends. With the first wave of baby boomers soon reaching retirement age, it's a story the media can't afford to downplay much longer