Each year in May we pause to acknowledge Older Americans‘influence on our society as well as consider how to maintain a society in which the presence and engagement of older Americans is respected and valued. In recent years this celebration has been led by policy makers and advocates such as the Administration on Community Living (ACL), the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging (n4a) or groups like the National Hispanic Council on Aging (NHCOA) and AARP who have all had a role in reminding us that communities that engage and encourage the contributions of older Americans become stronger, more cohesive communities that are beneficial to everyone.
This year the theme for Older Americans Month is Connect, Create and Contribute. We are encouraged to:
- Connect with friends, family, and services that support participation,
- Create by engaging in activities that promote learning, health, and personal enrichment and
- Contribute time, talent, and life experience to benefit others.
As we consider ways to engage and support all members of our community, we must also acknowledge some of the hurdles and critical solutions needed to support older adults in continuing to live life in their communities and their key role in the vitality of those communities.
Changing our attitudes
“Every day, 10,000 boomers turn age 65, or nearly 10 million over the next three years. By 2030, 73 million—or one in five— people in America will be age 65 or older. By 2035, all communities must be prepared to address these realities when, for the first time in our nation’s history, the population of adults age 60 and older will outnumber people younger than 20.” – Chuck Christiansen, Ageism and Elder Abuse
In order to maintain a society that is inclusive of older adults, we must promote the idea that aging is a positive step in the development of all people. This is unfortunately easier said than done as negative ideas about aging have created a culture for some in which older Americans may be viewed as less competent, inflexible, and ultimately less valued. As NAB Member Chuck Christiansen states, “To create the idea that we all have value as we age, we must have candid conversations about ageism and how older Americans are often cast aside due to their age.” While the secret to aging may not be in a Fountain of Youth, you can be sure that access to services and supports will make the journey more fulfilling for many older adults. To best prepare, people are encouraged to think critically and plan ahead for how, and where they wish to age and ensure those plans be known by their friends and family. This will allow their plans for aging to be carried out on their own terms rather than a response to a lifestyle change or medical emergency.
“As we think about how to live an independent lifestyle as we age, we must remember that independence is also about making honest and deliberate choices about where we wish to be and how we will stay engaged in our communities.” – NAB Member Bill Graves, Old Age Isn’t for Sissies – Thoughts on National Senior Independence Month
This discussion about aging and disability has been undergoing a significant change in the past 30 years. Disability inclusion and understanding how disability affects all people has become more and more common as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has been more integrated into the fabric of our culture. With knowledge of accommodations, accessibility and resources to support individuals with disabilities in our communities, we have seen a generation of Americans work longer, live longer, and think differently about aging, disability, and chronic illness. As we continue down this road, we as a community will think about the physical and cultural ways in which our communities are organized. Solutions such as universal design and livable communities seek to create spaces that are useful to all regardless of age or disability. The implications of these spaces that include broad physical accessibility as well as spaces for interaction and engagement are a new model that could change the landscape of what we consider city, and suburban living. For some Americans this may mean coming to terms with ideas about aging and access and making a decision to live in a community that is more accessible or closer to family and friends rather than where they are currently living. As personal mobility and accessibility are also an interest of younger generations, this may mean thinking about new ways of integrating new technologies like ride sharing, digital healthcare platforms and caregivers in spaces where old and young generations are living side by side.
Rather than move away from family and loved ones, people wish to age at home and in their communities. Caregivers are and will continue to play a significant role in the lives of older Americans and the future of how care and aging is carried out. The sheer number of Baby Boomers has caused a shift in ideas about aging and caregiving options that our communities and health care industry must embrace. Since many caregivers are family and friends who are fulfilling this role it is important that caregivers also have supports and tools to help them through the process of providing care. As NAB Member Sandy Markwood, of the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging (n4a) states, “In addition to the caregivers themselves, it is important to train health care providers on the realities of caregivers with whom they are working – particularly family caregivers.” We must also remember that since care is often provided by family and friends, cultural mores from different social and ethnic groups will also shade how care is given and discussed. Communities of color and the LGBTQ community will have unique approaches to aging that must be considered when connecting caregivers and health professionals. It is important that older adults and their medical professionals be prepared to consider caregivers as a part of their medical team all working toward the best interests and health outcomes as defined by the individuals receiving care.
This May as we recognize Older Americans Month there continues to be opportunities for engagement and discussion across multiple generations about what Aging means and how to ensure that older Americans stay engaged in our lives and communities. Rather than make this a once a year effort, let us really take the opportunity to listen to the ideas for better engagement and create communities in which accessibility, universal design and inclusion are the new normal. Doing so will prepare us for that continuing challenge of redefining our society to a place where everyone can thrive no matter their age.
For more information on Older Americans Month, visit the Administration on Community Living at https://acl.gov/oam/2019/logos. To learn read about some of the policy ideas on aging and caregivers, visit the NAB Blog at www.mydfi.org.