Being Our Own Advocates

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advocatingIn a recent article I wrote that we seniors must be our own advocates. We can’t be sure who will stand up for us, or what things we may need now and in the future. In thinking about advocates and advocacy, I realized that like everything else I needed to clarify what I meant. To provide a larger view, I sorted out where advocates and advocacy already exist.

At the broadest levels, the federal government manages large programs like Medicare and Social Security, without which many seniors would find it difficult or even impossible to manage their living expenses and health care. Federal monies also help pay for other programs such as food stamps, fuel assistance, subsidized housing, legal assistance, evidence-based health programs and transportation. AARP takes a comprehensive approach to advocacy and supports big federal programs.

At the state level every year, there are budget debates about how much money should go to serving older adults. Those of us who are aware of these proceedings call our representatives and ask them to vote for money for seniors.

Many local municipal budgets, including Newton’s, have line items for senior services. However, across Massachusetts, cities and towns struggle with the tiny allotments they receive from their local governments. In Newton, for example, the city’s allowance for the Department of Senior Services is slightly over $500,000 or less than one-half of one percent of the total budget. Considering that 22 percent of Newton’s population is people age 60 and over (approximately 18,500) that seems like a remarkably small amount. The Department does a great job advocating for and managing every penny, but the ability to add new programs and services, and to think and act creatively about the future for Newton’s seniors is seriously limited.

This comes to the final category of advocates and advocacy – us. Usually, the various advocacy levels – nation, state and local – have procedures to decide how to spend money and set priorities through legislative and budgetary processes. We, as individuals, don’t have clearly established routes. In addition, we may not even know what to advocate for. This, I think, is the biggest quandary.

I, like many other aging persons, go to bed each night knowing what is on my calendar for tomorrow, a week from now, and often months from now. What I can’t schedule is what I will be doing a few years from now. I can’t predict. However, over the past few years I have made some decisions and taken some actions that will make it easier to continue my life. I cleaned out decades of junk, sold my house, and moved into a condo where I don’t have to worry about snow shoveling. I have legal documents in order so my kids will know what to do with and for me. So far, I have managed and advocated for things over which I have control.Krux(‘ns:centro’, ‘dataprovider.exelate’);

The greater question about advocacy comes when I try to think about what I should be advocating for. So, I made a list of possibilities. I want to live in a place where I

  • have a decent, affordable, accessible and safe place to live,
  • am close to family and friends,
  • have a community to be involved in,
  • have a way to get around if I can’t drive,
  • can walk safely outside without a fear of falling,
  • can be connected to and inspired by nature and culture,
  • am respected for my knowledge, wisdom and experience,
  • get helpful information quickly, and
  • can access good medical care when I need it.

These are the components of a good place to live and it strikes me as quite reasonable. In fact, they are the basic concepts of Livable or Aging Friendly Communities, which are being implemented all over the world. When people talk about models, they can appear to be abstract and distant. Yet, if I apply these items to myself, it becomes very obvious that these are part of and have impact on my quality of life. Therefore, I must be an advocate in my community to make sure these options exist. If I should move in the future, I can use the list to select a new place. Importantly, being an advocate for myself will also benefit others like me who want to continue to stay here.

The word advocacy means giving verbal support for a cause or position. The verbal part is critical but, for people to hear us, we must show up and speak up – at governmental hearings, budget discussions, in the newspapers, at neighborhood groups, with action-oriented agencies – anywhere where the voice of seniors needs to be presented. If we don’t talk, no one will know that they need to listen, that there are many of us, that we have a lot to say, and that we are our own powerful advocates.


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About Marian

Marian Leah Knapp, Ph.D., wants to start a new conversation about “aging with intent.” Much of what is written about elders is from the point of view of physicians, psychiatrists, gerontologists, and adult children. In her roles as author, columnist, speaker and elder activist, Marian is reporting from the front lines.
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