Older adults are taking center stage once again. No, this is not a performance of an older-adult dance troupe, symphony or chorus. It’s about a month set aside to celebrate older Americans for their contribution to society. May is Older Americans Month.
The theme for 2018 is “Engage at Every Age.” The message is that we are never too old (or young) to participate in activities that can enrich our physical, mental and emotional well-being. It also celebrates the number of ways older adults make a difference in our communities.
This formal recognition of older Americans began with President Kennedy in 1963 when he designated May as “Senior Citizens Month” during a meeting with the National Council of Senior Citizens. That was when only 17 million Americans reached their 65th birthday in comparison to over 40 million today. About one-third of those 17 million lived in poverty with few programs to meet their needs. In 1980, President Carter changed the name to Older Americans Month. Two years later, in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson passed the Older Americans Act and formally declared May as Older Americans Month.
Engagement is a positive influencer in improving the quality of life for older adults. We know that sustained engagement in cognitively demanding, novel activities enhances memory function in older adulthood. We gain insight on the impact of older adults’ volunteering from those in Senior Corps, a federal agency for service, volunteering and civic engagement. Serving as tutors and mentors to children with special needs, these older volunteers reap positive health benefits including decreases in anxiety and depression, loneliness and social isolation as well as having greater physical capacity and higher life satisfaction. Such is the case for 245,000 older adults who are members of Senior Corps.
Jacquelyn B. James and colleagues from the Sloan Center on Age and Work, Boston College studied individuals who participated in work, volunteering, caregiving or education. The researchers found a difference between those being engaged and those just involved. Engagement was defined as an activity that one embraces physically, mentally and emotionally. Involvement is more passive without that visceral link.
Their results indicated that just being involved and not feeling particularly excited about the activity is as good for one’s well-being as not being involved in the activity at all. It was the high engagement that enhanced health and happiness.
Some may find it a challenge to find an activity that is exciting. Often when we ask older adults what is your passion, there is a blank stare. Recalling my growing up years, passion was not part of the vocabulary. It wasn’t a topic of conversation in selecting a school, major or even a career.
And yet today, we have the freedom to discover and search what is important, meaningful and actually enriches our soul.
Here are some suggestions:
Check out volunteer opportunities in your community: Consider causes or issues that are important to you such as child literacy, homelessness, political action, suicide prevention, the library, theater and museum opportunities, driving cancer patients to treatment and more. For opportunities in the South Bay, contact The Volunteer Center, South Bay-Harbor-Long Beach at (310) 212-5009.
Consider an encore career that embraces your purpose, passion and even a paycheck for the greater good: Encore.org suggests that as many as 9 million people between ages 44 and 70 are already in encore careers. About 31 million are interested in joining them. See www.Encore.org and https://generationtogeneration.org which mobilizes adults 50+ to help young people thrive.
Think about learning what you have always wanted to know or learn how to do: That could be a history or language course, learning about genealogy or taking horseback riding lessons. In the South Bay, the Omnilore program at California State University, Dominguez Hills centers on enriching study/discussion groups. See www.omnilore.org/.
To celebrate Older American’s Month, we acknowledge the contributions of our older adult population as well as their potential. So let’s recognize one another for all the good we do while being fully engaged, filling our soul as well as contributing to the greater good – all moving us closer to aging successfully.