August 21 is National Senior Citizens Day – a day to recognize the wisdom, accomplishments and sheer perseverance of older Americans. We have all been influenced by older Americans – be they parents, relatives or friends — but the way in which we think about older Americans can often contradict the realities of their day to day lives. As we turn our thoughts toward these essential members of our society, we should also take a moment to consider how we can create a community which offers support, and places value on the time and efforts of senior citizens – or as they may prefer, “older Americans.”
Portrayals in the media often give a one sided view of older Americans. Some of the most popular tropes in the media characterize older Americans as laid back retirees, or almost comedically over engaged thrill seekers. The less kind portrayal of a “senior citizen” is just as one sided as the other tropes — depicting older Americans as sick and frail, disconnected from daily culture, racist or disconnected with modern society, or unable to take care of themselves or be active participants in modern communities. The reality, however is that older Americans represent a diverse set of backgrounds, cultures and desires and though older they will be navigating a new world that continues to change as they age
A Generation Aging into Legend
When they first came on the scene Baby Boomers were one of the largest American generations — their mere presence shaping the American culture and creating a new perspective on our daily lives. As this group has aged they continue to generate a new dynamic based on their sheer numbers. There are more older Americans now than there ever have been in previous generations, and the same influence that has shaped American pop culture is now influencing how we view aging. By 2030, when all the baby boomers will have passed age 65, the over-65 crowd will reach 20 percent of the population, raising the median age of the entire country. In the same way that this generation has influenced shopping habits, entertainment trends and access to music, so will there also be a new demand for flexible healthcare services, and access to resources that are tailored to their unique ideas around aging. The generation that suggested that we “not trust anyone over 30” will want an approach to aging that is reflective of their goals, desires and terms, and this historic population shift will mean that all of our communities must be ready to think about the needs of older Americans.
Communities that are inclusive of everyone
Older Americans want to age with dignity in their homes and communities. More than anything Older Americans want to continue to contribute and have a place in their communities where they have made their homes, made a living and raised their families. As the aging population increases we must continue to make sure that our communities are inclusive and accessible for everyone . This not only includes a dedication to physical accessibility as older Americans are likely to encounter disabilities throughout the aging process, but also ensuring that there is access to services and supports that older Americans will be interested in using. If the current generation of older Americans has proved anything, it is that they insist on aging on their terms, and continuing to contribute to their communities in the ways that they see fit. Above all, maintaining a culture in which the contributions and presence of older Americans is respected and represented is something that will benefit all future generations.
One Size Will Not Fit All
Part of remaining in the communities in which older Americans are accustomed also means having choice in the care and services that they receive and retain the connection to their communities, families and friends. This is important for communities of color where connection to community and family are seen as a significant part of leading a fulfilling life. 2017 data indicates that communities of color indicate that 22.2% of African Americans, 14.5% of Asian Americans and 17.8% of Hispanics or Latinos reported having a disability. Considering the traditional hesitance of these communities to report disabilities it is likely that the actual numbers of people of color with disabilities is higher than the reported averages. Advocacy groups such as the National Hispanic Council on Aging (NHCOA) remind us that in order to support all aging Americans, implementation strategies need to be developed to provide education and information in a culturally and linguistically appropriate manner. This means again realizing that in addition the stereotypical retiree, aging Americans are a diverse group with a myriad of experiences and as they continue aging, will wish to define their own requirements for living, interacting, working and continuing to be relevant in their communities. Our images and discussions of older Americans must also evolve to be more representative and inclusive of the diverse cultural tapestry that makes up America.
Access to care
For a significant number of Americans especially in communities of color, Family caregivers help make it possible for older adults and people with disabilities of all ages to live independently in their homes and remain a part of their communities. Roughly 40 million family caregivers provide unpaid care for their loved ones to the tune of $470 billion annually. Though there are programs such as the Older Americans Act National Family Caregiver Support Program that provide support to this growing number of caregivers, this support while important is often not enough to meet caregivers’ needs for services – thus affecting the care they are able to offer. If we are to provide necessary supports for older Americans, helping make sure that there is a corps of individuals that can offer quality caregiver supports will be very important. Senior citizens will benefit from a society in which we empower and support caregivers especially in diverse communities where family caregivers are a key part of living independently. Supporting and understanding not only when to have a caregiver, but also creating a culture to manage caregiver supports will be extremely important.
Senior Citizens Day was originally established in honor of older Americans in the US who made positive contributions in their communities, and bring awareness of social, health, and economic issues that affect them. For more information on the exciting work that is being done by and in support of America’s aging communities, visit organizations such as the National Hispanic Council on Aging (NHCOA), who are doing great work to engage diverse aging communities, or the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging (n4a), who remain dedicated to helping older adults and people with disabilities live with dignity and choice in their homes and communities..
Standing with these partners, we can take a page from the experience of older Americans and make the day not just a time to look at what was done in the past, but to agree to re-engage with, learn from, and continue to work with all members of our communities. By doing this we will remember that the support and planning that we offer to our greatest Generation will lay the groundwork for our futures as well. In that future, we will continue to promote a society that places importance on the inclusion of everyone no matter what their age. In that future we will be able to revel in our Me-ness, share the awesomeness of the Boom and Echo, continue to propose non-conformity, and promote our millennial selves way past the time of our blogs and podcasts, knowing that we have those who aspired and marched and worked before us as our examples – our teachers.