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Patti Yulish, 82, is a former interior designer who resides in a senior-living apartment in Los Angeles and loves volunteering, playing cards and being a grandmother.
But Thursdays are for TikTok.
That’s when Yulish and five other over-70 actors film for the Retirement House channel, a “content house” or “collab” featuring a group of people who purport to live together and create social media content. Their account has more than 4.6 million TikTok followers and 492,000 followers on Instagram.
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In videos, you’ll spot Yulish, known as Bubbe, in the house, lip-syncing to the latest hip-hop hit, interviewing rap stars or doing splits to the music of Cardi B and GloRilla. Or she’ll be doing the “wineglass challenge” — a trending stunt requiring her to hold the base of a wineglass in her teeth and attempt to pour the contents over her head and into the mouth of fellow actor Gaylynn Baker, 85, aka Mabel. Their messy version pulled in over 1.4 million likes.
Welcome to aging on social media, where the later years can be funny, adventurous, wise and hip.
Retirement House is just one account either featuring or created by “grandfluencers” — older adults invading the social media space dominated by those under 30. While they represent a minority of TikTok creators, their appearance on social media is “vital” to challenging the “ageist stereotypes preponderant among the young,” according to researchers who published a survey of TikTok accounts in The Gerontologist journal in October.
Grandfluencers counter the stereotype of older people fumbling with their phones. Instead, the digital literacy borne of the pandemic and the instant intimacy and feedback of social media are building a bridge between generations that is funny, inspirational and sometimes tender. And while there might be discordant or ageist moments, these seem overwhelmingly counterbalanced by the encouraging comments of these grandfluencers’ much younger fans.
“That generation is very supportive of us, and they’re having a great time watching us,” Yulish says. “I think that’s what they expect their future years to be — more like us than anything else.”
Tapping a hunger for wisdom
At the top of the grandfluencer pyramid are accounts like Retirement House and the flashy, funny and affirming antics of the four 60- and 70-something men who call themselves The Old Gays (10.4 million TikTok followers). But not all grandfluencers draw from young influencer culture. There are the calming tones of grandmothers like Diane Shiffer, aka Your Chubby Vintage Nana; the reassuring how-to videos of Bo Petterson from Dad Advice From Bo and Barbara Costello of Brunch With Babs; the colorful clothing of Judith Boyd, the Style Crone; and the travel videos of Charlotte Simpson, the Traveling Black Widow, to name just a few. At the age of 101, fashion icon and interior designer Iris Apfel, known for her colorful eyeglasses, has 2.5 million followers on Instagram.
The “democratizing” nature of social media has allowed all these older adults to gain followers and influencers, says Ashton Applewhite, an anti-ageism activist and author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism. The medium has opened opportunities for people of any age, she says. “I can open a TikTok channel tomorrow and start posting pictures of my garden or my grandchild, or ranting.”
Social media platforms attract followers by passion rather than by traditional demographics like age, says Meredith Jacobson, a Boston-based social media consultant who works with Petterson and other influencers. In other words, if you search on TikTok for like-minded people who love a particular rap artist or can teach you how to knit a sweater, their age doesn’t affect how you engage once you find them. “It’s not so much about age, it’s more about level of fandom and level of interest and the niche,” Jacobson says.