Celebrating the wisdom of our elders during Older Americans Month in May
During the pandemic, older adults have repeatedly made headlines. Unfortunately, many of those headlines have been less than positive, as older people are highly vulnerable to the ravages of the coronavirus and account for 80 percent of the deaths. This month, they occupy a positive headline. They are celebrated. 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.
Each year, a different theme is selected. This year it’s celebrating Communities of Strength featuring the Aging Network, with the special emphasis on the power of connection and engagement in building strong communities.
Community has been defined as a group that shares the same environment typically with common interests, beliefs and needs that affect the group’s identity and the people in it. Communities also are defined by their purpose. Here are a few examples of purposeful communities to be celebrated.
Communities with similar intent: A good example is The Aging Network, highlighted as a champion for older Americans during the month of May. Its mission is to maximize the independence, well-being, and health of older adults and those with disabilities across the lifespan, including their families and caregivers. The network is administered by the Administration for Community Living, a federal agency that connects federal, state and local agencies that provide services to help older adults live independently in their homes and communities. Such services include providing meals and job training and support for employment, senior centers, health promotion, benefits enrollment, caregivers, transportation and more. The work of all three levels of government is celebrated for its important work in improving the lives of older people.
Communities for collective action: An example is the Elder Action Network, a national movement of elders who are addressing what they describe as the social and environmental crises of our time. The network addresses racial and ethnic injustice, the plight of Native Americans, economic inequality and the impact of white supremacy. It achieves its goal by offering community conversations, online workshops, book study groups and works nationally to affect federal policy, legislation and regulation to mitigate climate change. They address many social justice issues by engaging the talent and experience of a largely untapped talents of elders.
Communities of concern: On a local level, the Caring House in Torrance is a good example. It the first and only non-medical home in Los Angeles County that focuses on end-of-life care. Its mission is to provide a loving home of care, peace and dignity for adults who are dying. About 300 people have spent their last days at Caring House; 100 percent of the residents receive hospice care during their stay. Their community consists of hundreds of volunteers, organizations and donors plus professional staff creating a caring community for a good end of life for individuals and their family and friends.
Communities of connection. Friends form a connecting community. In a 2017 Psychology Today article, Temma Ehrenfeld reminded us that “To age well, you need friends.” Research has found that friendships become more important as we get older compared to strong family ties that stay about the same over the lifespan. And friends play an important role in improving one’s overall health by reducing risks of serious health problems such as depression and high blood pressure. Here’s an added plus: “Older adults who have a rich social life are likely to live longer than their peers with fewer social connections,” according to the Mayo Clinic.
Our older adults continue to serve as role models in coping with the pandemic, relying on a lifetime of experiences and perspectives. One might call this wisdom. Particularly during this month, let’s celebrate our older friends as well as family members for their caring, strength and resilience during a difficult year. They continue to inspire us.
Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging, employment 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