Celebrate Older Americans Month by recognizing the contributions of our elders
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. President Biden has called upon all Americans to “celebrate older adults for their contributions, support their independence, and recognize their unparalleled value to our Nation.”
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 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson passed the Older Americans Act and formally declared May as Older Americans Month. Now in 2023, we celebrate its 60th birthday.
This year’s theme is “Aging Unbound,” an optimistic and realistic lens for later life. Here are four perspectives with possibilities.
Ageism disappears: Ageism is the last of the “isms” considered socially acceptable. We say things about older adults we never would say about one’s race, religion or ethnicity. Often ageism is subtle; other times it is more obvious as when an employer indicates “We are looking to hire digital natives,” meaning those who grew up with technology. That would exclude 60 and 70 year olds. Fortunately, there are movements, nonprofit organizations and resources to combat ageism. Examples are Changing the Narrative, the American Society on Aging, CoGenerate, the Encore Network, the Age ON movement and Old School: Anti-Ageism Clearing House.
Opportunities for change: The concept that later life is a time to find new passions and adventures and to push boundaries is relatively new. I recall my graduate school days when the term “life-span-development” was not mentioned in my developmental psychology textbook. Personal growth in later life was not emphasized. Yet today, aging is all about change. Older adults continue to grow by embarking on new careers, taking classes, getting degrees and engaging in new volunteer activities such as mentoring, hospice service and becoming entrepreneurs. They embark on new experiences such as hiking and biking trips; they become artists and master gardeners. Aging is a time of opportunity and that’s change.
Rewards of growing older: Yes, there are rewards that come with age. Several types of intelligence improve with age. First is emotional intelligence. That means one has the increased ability to understand, use and manage emotions. This type of intelligence can relieve stress, help us communicate effectively, empathize with others, overcome challenges and even diffuse conflicts. Likewise, social intelligence improves with age, that is the ability to understand people and effectively relate to them. Some call this wisdom. Crystalized intelligence improves with age. This type of intelligence is based on the accumulation of learning and experiences during a lifetime. It enhances the ability to utilize the skills and knowledge acquired through prior learning most effectively. Knowledge, vocabulary and reasoning typically improve. An extra bonus that comes with age is that senior discount.
Opportunities for connections: Friends in later life are considered essential for one’s physical and mental health. Close friendships strengthen the immune system, help to recover more quickly from illness, sharpen one’s memory and even lead to longer lives. In contrast, lack of social connection and loneliness lead to significant health risks and as well as risks of premature death and rival the risks associated with smoking, obesity and physical inactivity. Social connections emanate from working environments, volunteer activities, roles in faith-based organizations and book groups as well as participating in interest groups such as hiking, mahjong, golf, and knitting, to name a few. Then there are senior Centers and the Village movement, a membership organization to help older adults age in place and stay connected to their communities.
Older Americans Months reminds us to recognize the value of older adults to American Society. Here are just a few facts. Older Americans contribute over $8 trillion dollars to the American economy. About 2.5 million grandparents are raising grandchildren. About 40 million are caregivers.
So, thank you to our older adults for all you do and all you teach us.
A final thought: “Always be a little kinder than necessary” – J.B. Barrie, author of Peter Pan.
Stay well everyone and have a good week.
Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging and the new retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. Contact Helen with your questions and comments at Helendenn@gmail.com. Visit Helen at HelenMdennis.com and follow her on facebook.com/SuccessfulAgingCommunity