Colorado nonprofit enlists artists to fight ageism with birthday cards

Laurie Brock’s 70th birthday was a real milestone, and not because of her age. It was the first time she could remember not getting some “over-the-hill” cards that make a joke of health ailments, sagging body parts and looming mortality.

The Denver woman chalked up the delightful surprise to the fact that she had been trying to spread the word about the harmful effects of ageism. She was a volunteer at Changing  the Narrative, a Colorado-based organization that works with communities, employers and nonprofits to advocate for older adults.

Brock took the stack of 27 cards to a team meeting with Janine Vanderburg, the organization’s director. ” ‘Look at this, I got all non-ageist birthday cards,’ I said with glee.”

They weren’t all what Brock called “sweetsie,” but were upbeat and fun.

A light went on in Vanderburg’s head, Brock said. The organization launched an initiative to offer birthday cards designed to celebrate, not denigrate, older adults marking a birthday.

Brock planted the seeds of the idea, said Sara Breindel, chief of staff for Changing the Narrative. The organization reached out to supporters and contacts to get out the word about the project. The first round of birthday cards was offered via the organization’s website in 2021.

“Initially, the idea was let’s use birthday cards as a way to prompt people’s thinking about aging. It’s kind of a fun way to think about it as opposed to just reading a book about ageism,” Breindel said. “Since then, we’ve had a great response. People have said we need more of those, you need to do more with that.”

Changing the Narrative started talking to more designers and artists and selected 10 designers from across the country. Melissa Mika of Fort Collins was the only Colorado artist whose work is in the new selection.

Breindel said Vanderburg was invited to give the keynote address at a national greeting card association conference in 2021 to talk about ageism.

“If the industry is interested in hearing about this, that’s a good sign,” Breindel said. “There’s a market of people out here. Older adults are the fastest growing part of our population.”

Sarah Schwartz, editor-in-chief of Stationery Trends Magazine, a trade publication for the greeting card and related industries, said the kinds of cards being produced are changing to reflect society’s growing diversity.

“Changing the Narrative is very beautifully putting some light on the vernacular, the ways we speak, and ways we can celebrate age and the wisdom and other things that come with it,” Schwartz said. “It’s more of looking back on all they have accomplished and the amazing person they are instead of ‘You’re old and getting ready to die.’ ”

Schwartz likened greeting cards to “micro-conversations” that are taking new turns as the culture goes through changes.

“It’s a time of great social upheaval. When that happens, people are trying to connect and communicate with each other,” Schwartz said.

At a recent trade show in Atlanta, Schwartz saw greeting cards celebrating a person’s sobriety, a divorce, a decision not to have children and someone’s transition to a new gender.

“They’re kind of enabling the conversations, when people are not really sure how to approach it,” Schwartz said.

While Schwartz wouldn’t want to see all the funny-if-rough birthday cards disappear, she supports Changing the Narrative’s efforts to treat people as more than a number.

A cursory review of greeting cards at a Denver drugstore showed that birthday cards aimed at older people run the gamut. One with a bird in a party hat on the front said a birthday is a yearly reminder “of how long you’ve been awesome.”

However, not far down the rack was another card that said birthdays are a timely reminder of where the years go. Inside was a paper pop-up toilet. Another said getting older is like taking a yoga class: “Your chances of farting in public go way up.”

Countering those sentiments is part of the reason Mika, the Fort Collins artist, submitted designs for Changing the Narrative’s initiative. Her work was chosen for both rounds of cards.

Mika’s business PAGEFIFTYFIVE is online and has a storefront in Fort Collins. She started designing and selling greeting cards 11 years ago when she couldn’t find cards to give to her wife or a same-sex couple getting married.

Her work with Changing the Narrative opened her eyes to the issue of ageism, Mika said. She remembers her mother saying she didn’t like birthday greetings that mocked getting older. Her wife’s mother faced a forced retirement while Mika was working on the first set of non-ageist cards.

“It was pretty eye-opening,” she said.

Mika said older adults’ perceptions of themselves are likely a combination of what they hear from society and what they tell themselves.

“We take on what society tells us, which is the whole point of these cards. Let’s have cards that embrace aging and we might tell ourselves that story, too.”

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