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'Grandfluencers' Find Stardom on Social Media — and Fight Ageism

Young fans seek connection, wisdom and a glimpse of what aging can look like

spinner image Collage of "Grandfluencers" images from TikTok. Clockwise from top left: Retirement House; Brunch with Babs; Your Chubby Vintage Nana; Iris Apfel; Black Widow; Style Crone; The Old Gays; and Dad Advice from Bo
Clockwise from top left: Retirement House; Brunch with Babs; Your Chubby Vintage Nana; Iris Apfel; Black Widow; Style Crone; The Old Gays; and Dad Advice from Bo

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. ​


At least we tried @user1990423419036

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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. ​

But for many younger, Gen Z social media users, grandfluencer content seems to satisfy a hunger for reassurance and validation from an older generation, according to several creators. In that realm, being older is an advantage, as grandfluencers present themselves as inspiring, wise or comforting. ​

Shiffer, 66, warmly invites her 715,000 TikTok and 521,000 Instagram followers into the peace of her vintage-style home in upstate New York, where she accessorizes her morning coffee — always served in a china cup — with lace-trimmed, embroidered linens and homemade cinnamon buns. She was a blogger but went viral on Instagram in 2021 demonstrating how she twists up her long, white hair into a 1940s updo. ​

She started out posting about her vintage style and her children. But her followers responded to her slow pace and reassuring chats, often delivered in intimate close-ups while her hair is in pink foam curlers or she’s wearing a vintage dress. “Hello, my darlings,” she says into her camera soothingly. “You know that thing that you’ve been dreading? You know that thing that you’ve been putting off for way too long? I want to tell you something: You can do it.” ​


Whelp! We hit a rather large milestone over on… that *other app* 😉😅 and i just wanted to thank you all for giving me your time and your attention and, most of all, your friendship. You truly have changed my life. #nanalovesyou

♬ Count on Me (Instrumental Version) - Instrumental Pop Songs & Soft Background Music

That bit of wisdom got more than 26,000 likes with sometimes heart-rending responses: “You’d be surprised how many people never had anyone talk to them how you do,” or “My gramma died 3 days ago. She was the only one who supported me i miss her alot.” ​

Older influencers battle ageism

That said, ageism is not always easy to dodge. Brandon Chase, 26, and Adi Azran, 27, who created Retirement House, say they have struggled to find the sweet spot between humor and mockery. The feed began as a jokey spoof on TV shows like Jersey Shore and the TikTok houses featuring 20-something personalities partying and doing stupid stuff. Chase and Azran thought the discordance of old people playing drinking games would be good for laughs. They were surprised when their older actors turned out to be funny, energetic and up for almost anything. ​

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“We realized that there is a stigma about getting older and that people think you just go into a retirement home and watch TV all the time,” says Chase. “And we saw how much life these guys had and how much energy they had. And it totally changed how we thought of older people.” ​

After more than a year of making videos together, the Retirement House cast and creators say they have become close and collaborative. “They listen to what we say,” Yulish explains. “Sometimes I’ll say, ‘Well, I wouldn’t react that way.’ And they say, ‘Well, let’s see how you would react.’ And then they say, ‘Yeah, do it the way you do it. Just be Bubbe.’ And I love it.” ​

Still, there’s no getting around the fact that the cast looks old, and that’s part of the humor, Azran says. He admits writers will occasionally throw a walker into a dance shot for the cheap laugh. ​

But Baker thinks the message on aging is mostly positive. “I don’t think we’re making fun of old people,” Baker says. “I think we’re making fun of the way this country has treated 'old.'” ​

Still, the learning curve for older creators is sometimes steep. Even though most of the Retirement House actors have experience with acting and sketch comedy, they had to learn the quick timing of short videos, as well as lip-syncing and some impressive hip-hop moves. Shiffer, who does her own filming and editing, says that a video that might take a digital native an hour or two to pull together can take her 10. ​

And age does sometimes have its limits. Simpson, the travel expert, has learned to accept that she can’t always achieve whatever popular Instagram angle goes viral for younger influencers. One example was in Petra, Jordan, where there’s a popular selfie spot to capture the facade of the “Treasury” temple, famously depicted as the resting place of the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.​

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Simpson is brave enough to have traveled to 60 foreign countries by herself. But she realized the photo would require a difficult and rocky climb to have the temple behind her. She chose a different place to stand. Her decision told her followers it is OK not to follow the influencer crowd, she says.

“Why do we all have to have that same angle?” Simpson asks. “And I’m not going to have that angle because I’m not going to risk my life to get up there.” Whether in real life or on social media, she says, age brings confidence. “You’re just better able to just do you.” ​

spinner image posts from the TikTok account Retirement House
The Retirement House actors say their popularity on social media has provided later-in-life career success. 
Retirement House

‘We’re all in this life thing together’

That confidence is creating a professional resurgence for some grandfluencers, who are catching the eye of marketers and others. Retirement House has partnerships with brands ranging from Twisted Tea alcoholic iced tea to CeraVe body creams.

One travel company representative told Simpson she brought something different to the social media space because she wasn’t just another pretty face. She took it as a compliment. “He says it’s nice to see someone with a different following, a different message. So, somehow, they are getting my message to enjoy your life,” says Simpson, who only gives her age as over 65. ​

The fame and financial rewards are pretty sweet, too, according to Baker (aka Mabel) of Retirement House. She, Yulish and the others — Chuck Lacey, 71; Monterey Morrissey, 71; Reatha Grey, 73 ; and Jerry Boyd, 77 — are having a blast, being recognized out in public and walking the red carpet at the Streamy awards show, which recognizes excellence in online video. ​

“Instead of auditioning for commercials, now people write in and say, ‘Can we have Mabel for our commercials?’ ” says Baker, an actor, filmmaker and writer who started dancing at the age of 3 and has been around show business for decades. “I have been a creative artist my entire life. I’ve never had this kind of wonderful recognition. It’s just marvelous.” ​

And the connection they have with their fans provides gratification too. Petterson, who is filmed by his daughter Emily in a collaboration that started after she had a traumatic head injury and needed a way to re-engage, gives dad advice on everything from changing a tire to proper handshakes to picking up a baby. He has 2.4 million TikTok followers and 967,000 on Instagram. 


The only message I need you to see as we enter 2023. Love, Dad

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Like any good parent, this father of six adult children and granddad of three is reassuring. In one video, he simply speaks into the camera to tell followers that he’s proud of them, “in case you needed to hear this today from a dad.” It has over 50,000 likes on TikTok and more than 1,700 comments, such as “I really needed this, I appreciate it. I’ve never been told how proud someone is of me.”​

Petterson says he was lucky to learn a lot from his own father. 

“Most of all, I try to remind my followers that I, too, have needed someone to gently teach me something and give me a lot of patience in my lifetime,” he adds. “We are all in this life thing together, learning from each other, no matter our age.” ​

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