On April 10, 2017, I attended the Age-Friendly Communities Conference, sponsored by AARP, Tufts Health Plan Foundation, Grantmakers in Aging, and FSG, a “mission-driven consulting firm for leaders in search of large-scale, lasting social change.” It was terrific. I learned a great deal that will guide my city’s initiative as a designated member of the World Health Organization/ AARP Age-Friendly/Livable Community Network.
AARP aims to “…help people live easily and comfortably in their homes and communities as they age.” That simple statement has just a few words, but surrounding this conceptual “age-friendly” vision is a massive, complex, multi-layered organism with parts that have their own goals and agendas. How do we bring those pieces together to support age-friendliness? We don’t have the answers yet, but individuals and organizations around the world are taking strong, initial steps. Locally, Departments of Senior Services and Councils on Aging are working on it, but there are barriers to true success – however communities decide to define that.
I gleaned several key messages from the Conference including factors that critically impact the ability to move forward.
Ageism is premier on the list. I have written about ageism and ageist attitudes in the past. But I feel that I am shouting into a void. Ageist and denial of aging messages abound. They appear in all of the anti-aging, forever-young, can’t-believe-some Hollywood-star-is-55 rhetoric. This makes my heart sink. Yes, we need to take care of ourselves and try to be healthy throughout our life-times, but we are all getting older and most of us will experience some changes as we do that. Not acknowledging this is folly. It prevents us from planning our futures. The biggest aging deniers are older people themselves. Of course, none of us want to decline and become frail, and dependent. But without thinking about what we will do as this happens, we are putting huge burdens on those who will be responsible for us, and placing ourselves at great risk. So, the first battle for age-friendliness is to stop denying that aging is a reality.
Ageism plays a major role in the second factor- not understanding or accepting the issues of aging. Most of us know what can occur. There are the diseases that affect all parts of our bodies, including mental functioning such as Alzheimer’s disease. Falls can break our bones and inhibit our ability to walk and climb stairs. We may not have control over some of these conditions, but there are others we do – exercise, diet, balance programs can all help prevent disabling events. Of course, some of us are lucky and don’t experience problems until much later in life. I am wary of painting a picture of doom because, even with some health issues, most of us maintain active, fulfilling lives.
However, there is an underground of social problems such as isolation and loneliness that rarely comes to the surface. Professionals such as doctors and case managers, and family members are most likely to see this. At a recent session with social work and medical staff from my local hospital we heard their passionate words about the increasing numbers of elders who are living in homes they can’t maintain, have no people close by to help with the simplest tasks, and don’t have the capacity to figure out what services are available. There are two basic issues here. People don’t want to admit they need help (the old ageism) and there are inadequate resources for outreach, and to provide or coordinate services.
The final issue for me, at least for the time being, has to do with the focus on Baby Boomers and planning for their future. As I listen to how we must look ahead and think about Baby Boomers needs, I wonder, “what about me?” I am not a Baby Boomer. I am too old. I am of the “Silent Generation”- between “Greatest” and “Boomer,” and there are many of us. We are aging right now, at this very moment. We already have diseases related to aging, are falling down, becoming disabled, and facing an existence of loneliness, isolation, and fear. Certainly Boomers will add to the bulk of seniors, but we “Older-than-Boomers” are here right now, and many of us have problems that are not being adequately served. We elders and those who care about us have major responsibility for problem solving. But, even if we acknowledge an issue, we may not know where to turn, be put on huge waiting lists, or find a true absence of services. This is where the community comes in, and where adequate resources must be available. By focusing on Boomers, the issues of aging and solutions are being pushed into the future; major problems are happening here and now. By the time we comprehend the importance of helping current vulnerable populations, I and others like me, will be dead and forever silent.
These three items are daunting – almost imponderable – because becoming truly age-friendly requires profound social, emotional, and psychological transformation. You and I must be in the forefront of change. No one will do it for us.