By: Bethanie Constant
May is Older Americans Month, a time to acknowledge the extraordinary contributions of older adults in our communities, highlight important trends, and strengthen our commitment to honoring our older citizens. Let’s pause for a moment. Think of a living or late older adult who nourished your soul. It can be a family member, friend, teacher, or mentor. Think about the contributions they made to your life and their community. Now note that some label them as being a part of something that causes harm: a “silver tsunami.”
The metaphor of a silver tsunami has been used in major media outlets and scholarly literature to refer to the growing number of older adults compared to other age brackets. Yes, it is true that by 2060, nearly one in four Americans will be 65 years and older, the number of people who are 85+ will triple, and the country will add a half million centenarians. This is a fact, so let’s find a way to move forward in a positive direction with solutions not an ageist direction with no solutions.
Older adults have paid their dues, working and paying taxes, paying into Social Security, contributing to our economy, raising families, volunteering in their community, and serving in the military. Many still contribute by working, volunteering, mentoring, raising grandchildren, serving as caregivers for others, and participating in their community in numerous other ways.
Older people possess the skills, knowledge and experience to continue to contribute effectively to society – let’s harness that. As the overall population, in the U.S. and globally, grows older and lives longer, the competitiveness of our local communities and country will depend on how we support older adults, employers, and the health care system.
To appreciate others who are aging, we have to first appreciate our aging selves. Unlike race, ethnicity, sexuality, sex, gender, religion, political belief, ability status, or other variables, growing older is something we all have in common. Maggie Kuhn, the late founder of the Gray Panthers movement who lived until age 94, said “There are six myths about old age: 1. That it’s a disease, a disaster. 2. That we are mindless. 3. That we are sexless. 4. That we are useless. 5. That we are powerless. 6. That we are all alike.” If this is believed and internalized, we will feel it about others.
Becca Levy, Ph.D., of Yale University’s Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, found in a longitudinal study that older people with more positive self-perceptions of aging live 7.5 years longer than those with less positive self-perceptions of aging. This finding held strong even after accounting for other factors, including age, gender, socioeconomic status, loneliness and overall health. The effect of more positive self-perceptions of aging was found to be greater than measures of low systolic blood pressure and cholesterol, contributions of lower body mass index, no history of smoking, and a tendency to exercise.
Here are some ways you can celebrate growing older (365 days a year) and Older Americans Month (31 days a year):
I am aging, you are aging, we are all aging. Let’s enjoy it as much as possible.
Bethanie Constant is pursuing her MS in Gerontology at Virginia Commonwealth University and works at a Continuing Care Retirement Community in Charlottesville, Virginia. Points of view expressed here are personal.