Older adults are taking center stage. 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 past and current for their contribution to society. May is Older Americans Month.
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.
This year’s theme is “Connect, Create and Contribute.”
Connect: Social isolation in the U.S. is considered a national epidemic. Between 33 and 43 percent of older Americans report they are lonely sometimes or always. According to the National Institute on Aging, social isolation and loneliness increase the risks for physical and mental conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline and even death. We might learn from Great Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May who appointed a Minister of Loneliness.
The message: If you know an older adult who is lonely, reach out and make the connection. And if you are feeling lonely, connect with a friend, family, clergy person or join an interest group. Take the initiative. It’s worth the effort.
Create: Create means to produce and invest in something new, in activities that embrace learning and personal enrichment. The late Dr. Gene D. Cohen, a noted expert on creativity and aging, writes in his book “The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life” that the unique combination of age, experience and creativity can produce inner growth and potential for everyone. He adds that creativity is not just for geniuses.
The message: We all can create. According to Harvard professor Howard Gardner as referred to by Cohen, there are two types of creativity: Creativity with a big “C” applies to extraordinary accomplishments from unusual people such as Einstein’s theory of relativity or Matisse’s cutouts. Creativity with a little “c” is grounded in realities of everyday life such as sending a letter to a grandchild, planting a garden, writing a poem or figuring out a new fundraising strategy for your favorite non-profit organization. Give yourself credit for your current creative endeavors and explore some new ones.
Contribute: Contributions can be for pay or not. Our paid work easily can shape a better society. The not-for pay-also counts, contributing to our families and volunteering in our communities and the nation. We know that about one in four older adults engages in volunteer work and volunteer more hours a year than other age groups. According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, from 2008 to 2010, 18.7 million older adults, 55 and older, contributed on average more than three billion hours of service in their communities. Older volunteers tend to live longer and experience better health in their later years compared to those who don’t volunteer.
The message: Again, give yourself a pat on the back for your contributions either for pay — or not — that make a difference in the lives of others, the environment and in public and political arenas. Continue to find ways to contribute that fulfill your sense of purpose. Studies indicate that those who have a sense of person live on average seven- and one-half years longer than those without a purpose — rather compelling evidence.
Older Americans month reminds us of the value of older adults in our society. We collectively are responsible for almost $7 trillion dollars of our economy and are the most valuable — and perhaps only — growing natural resource that we have. Let’s all celebrate Older Americans’ month. It’s our story.