I was at a meeting the other day with a small group of people and we were talking about ways to address issues that impact seniors. The discussion revolved around the major concerns and anxieties about things we all face: housing (where to live as we get older so that we are comfortable, safe and not isolated); transportation and mobility (how do we get from here to there if we can’t drive); and community connection (how do we stay attached and integrated into our neighborhoods, city, and other communities both tangible and conceptual). These three basic elements – a secure place to live, a way to get around, and being part of a bigger whole – are the primal requisites not only of seniors but of everyone regardless of age.
During this conversation, the topics bounced back and forth between what the needs are, what plans can be developed, what is already going on in Newton, and, importantly, the general lack of public awareness about the extent and depth of these dilemmas here in our city.
You know that feeling when you are sitting in a discussion and that sickening sense of déjà vu begins to creep into your gut? Well that’s what happened to me. My senses and mind churned. How many times have I participated in conversations like this? Why are we talking as if this is a brand new topic? Aren’t we aware of the numbers of older people in the city that are worried? Don’t we all know the demographic predictions of dramatic increases in the percentage of older people in our midst?
Then it hit me. What could have been viewed as a minor language construct, suddenly loomed large for me as a profound societal conundrum. The folks in this little group were talking passionately about “them.” They need housing, they need to get around, they need to avoid isolation. Even though all of us in that room were age 65 or older, talking about “them” signaled a disturbing denial that what we were really talking about was “us”, but we didn’t want to admit it.
“Maybe that’s it?” I wondered. Maybe we are having these discussions over and over again because not enough of us truly believe that the progress of aging and all that that entails is happening to “us.” As long as we talk about “them” we are depersonalizing our challenges and thereby distancing them from ourselves. On a personal level, we could be setting up struggles for us and our families as we age into the future. In addition, and on a broader level, we are throwing away a potentially powerful opportunity to say what “we” need and want in a forceful collective voice.
Perhaps we need a shared view of what we may want as seniors? Having such a construct could help us come together as advocates for us. We are similar to everyone else in many ways. We are creative, innovative, thoughtful, and caring people. What may set us apart from those who are younger is that with aging the details of what is required, changes because we change more than our surroundings change. If we live in a big house, that house will remain a big house, which could become too much to manage – snow, stairs, maintenance. If we have a car in the garage, that vehicle will continue to sit there, but now be idle if we develop a vision problem. If we have the habit of attending meetings or cultural events, those happenings will likely go on without us whether or not we have the wherewithal to get there. As a result, we are the ones to risk isolation not the activities.
I believe it is time to start framing what’s important to us as older citizens. First, if we choose to stay in Newton and don’t want the responsibilities of a house, we want residences that fit our financial requirements, are on one level with easy access to the outdoors, and are within walking distances of Newton’s villages. Second, we want to have good transportation services that will carry us to places for daily living necessities, cultural and spiritual enrichment, and to keep us physically fit. Finally, we want ways to stay integrated and connected to what is around us – either within our neighborhoods or in the broader community.
Some of these we can initiate on our own – neighborhood connections, for example. But for other concerns we need the help and dedication of decision-makers in our government – the mayor, department heads, and the Board of Aldermen. The Newton Council on Aging and the Department of Senior Services have made these three elements – housing, getting around, and staying connected – their top strategic planning goals. We are working hard on them.
But only with our joined, loud voices will we ever hope to see some real, visible, and dedicated focus on “us” with some meaningful, positive, and tangible results.