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Successful Aging: Focusing on the wide-ranging contributions of older Americans

Dear readers,

It’s time for a celebration. May is Older Americans Month, a time to celebrate older Americans for their past and current contributions to society.

The 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 almost 50 million today. About one-third of those 17 million lived in poverty with few programs to meet their needs. Two years later, in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson passed the Older Americans Act and formally declared May as Older Americans Month. 

Each year there is a theme. This year’s theme is “Make your Mark,” selected to encourage and celebrate the countless contributions older adults make to our communities. Here are some highlights of those contributions.  

Older adults as volunteers: Older adults are volunteers. Almost one out of four older adults volunteer in some capacity, which translates to 1.9 billion hours of services worth $45.5 billion of contributed services. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics listed the median annual volunteer service hours for all ages as 52 hours per person; for those 65 and older, the median was 96 hours. Older adults volunteer as a way to give back, making a difference in their churches, organizations, communities and wherever there is a need.

Older adults with encore careers: An encore career typically occurs after one’s primary career and before what we consider traditional retirement. It is a career that embraces purpose, passion, sometimes a paycheck and giving back to make a difference. Giving back is a distinguished aspect. A study from several years ago found that 5.3 to 8.4 million people between the ages of 44 and 70 had an encore career, working in education, health care, government and nonprofit organizations. Of those within that age group not already in an encore career, half said they were interested in one.

Older adults as caregivers: Many caregivers of older people are themselves older adults. According to the National Alliance for Caregiving, 70 percent of adult children are caring for a parent ages 50 to 64 years. Some caregivers are even older. A typical much older caregiver is almost 79 years old, white, female and typically cares for a close relative who is 77 years old. This older caregiver provides 34 hours of care per week for five years. She is the sole unpaid care provider for her loved one.

Older adults as age advocates: Older adults also advocate for themselves and causes for social justice. Betty Friedan not only advocated for the advancement of women’s rights but also for older women when she wrote “The Fountain of Age” published when she was 72 years old. Author and activist Ashton Applewhite at age 68 leads a movement to abolish age discrimination. Her book, “This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism” is written to do just that.

Older adults as movement builders: At the age of 77, John Sorenson, a former CEO, created the Elders Action Network, a movement of elders to address the social and environmental crises of our time. The foundation of his work is the belief that we are wasting an invaluable human resource that could be applied to problems facing our nation. The Network focuses on climate action, sustainable living and social justice. A subgroup of the network is the Elders Climate Action with 3300 members, a non-partisan movement of elders committed to making their voices heard to change national policies to void catastrophic changes in the earth’s climate. 

Older adults as contributors to our economy: In 2018, those 50 years and older contributed $8.3 trillion dollars to our economy. In terms of gross domestic product, that places older adults’ contribution as the world’s third-largest economy just behind the U.S. and China. We earn and spend money; we generate tax revenue, give to social causes and create demand for products and services that stimulates growth. We have created the “longevity economy.”  

In this trying time, let’s celebrate us. We collectively made our mark yesterday and today. I am certain, we will continue to make our mark for our many tomorrows. 


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