As I was closing down my desk at Philadelphia's Center in the Park
a few years ago, the organization was in the midst of preparing its next strategic plan. The fact that the center was doing this gave me the opportunity to look back on 29 years of working on the grassroots and policy levels that I have been privileged to be a part of and to reflect on what has and has not worked.
I have often thought and spoken about the evolution of senior centers and compared their humble beginnings to the one room schoolhouse. The community institutions dealing with children and elders began in very much the same way – both trying to meet the many different needs and wants of everyone in the same space. As each of these systems matured, they evolved into more sophisticated entities that could respond to the many different wants and needs of those they served. This meant the creation of different styles and various approaches at different ages and stages. Obviously, one size for those age 55 to 100+ does not fit all!
I now have a list of five concerns that I believe must be recognized to move aging forward positively for both the well and the frail:
1.) One of the realities of being older is that the strong need for socialization and involvement is trivialized by the powers that be.
When we speak of preventive health, socialization is a common denominator that cuts through all socio-economic, racial, religious and gender groupings as well as the hale and the frail. Where and how different groups want their socialization experiences to happen may differ but this is an incredibly important aspect of most every person’s life.
I base the importance of developing a broad-based program on the premise that people are eager to join groups that share their interests and values. They don’t see themselves joining support groups. But these interest groups soon become support groups because of the high level of comfort within the group.
Giving and getting support from your peers helps keep you in control of your life and your ability to age positively. Major, positive outcomes result from positive socialization experiences. These positive results that come from socializing augment the good health of our older citizens and keep national medical costs down. And as important and inexpensive as this is, in keeping people healthy it is trivialized and not supported.
As a strong believer in the need for high quality programming, I must say that fitness and exercise are recognized as magic pills that will maintain and yes, even improve the health and well being of older people. New and exciting research is also showing that creativity brings the same results. In neither area are there collaborative efforts to bring quality instruction and experiences to community-based or institutional venues where older people feel comfortable testing out their wings.
2.) On paper, our legislators have responded positively to the desire of frail people to stay in their own homes rather than going to “The Home” but are our communities ready to put the resources that are needed in place to avoid the many problems that this isolation will bring?
I literally have nightmares about this scenario. Perhaps it comes from my recognition of the devastation that isolation brings to an individual. Being home alone day after day with very little person-to-person interaction other than somebody checking your medical condition can bring about the kind of isolation that leads to severe depression and all its ramifications.
I do believe there are answers to this but are we ready to invest in what it takes to make it so that every older person lives in a warm, friendly, safe home? There are Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities (NORC’s) both in apartment buildings and in private homes in many of our neighborhoods. Philadelphia's Rhawnhurst NORC
is an example.
When shared resources are brought in, NORCS have the potentials to be special, caring places in our communities. Are we willing to put forth the resources that will develop the technology that would connect isolated homebound individuals with classes and activities at the senior center, at colleges/universities, at libraries, at congregational settings and other venues?
3.) Language is very important and the words "senior," "elder" and "older adult" are totally unacceptable for the generation coming up.
Those people who are well and vital connect the word "senior" with "old" and "frail" and those qualities do not describe who the generation coming up are. This group is inventing a new stage of life that hasn’t been very well defined as of yet. In my social set we have dubbed this new stage in our lives as “moving on.” Because people are living longer, healthier lives they do not see themselves as being old at 55.
Many people who are retiring in their late 50’s and 60’s are not looking for the golden age of leisure retirement. More often they are looking for their lives to have a purpose. They want to make a difference. Many people of this vintage still see themselves as productive, working citizens but want/need to limit their hours and responsibilities and little has been done to address this new reality.
The group Civic Ventures
, based in
San Francisco , and under the leadership of Marc Freedman, has done much to spread their message nationally. The philosophical base that Civic Ventures is trying to establish is encapsulated as follows: “There is a need to come up with creative and compelling work and volunteer projects to reinvent the third stage of life so that there is a balance in responsibilities and purpose across the generations.” Baby boomers don’t see themselves as an age segregated group. They see themselves as part of the ebb and flow of the entire community.
4.) Nonprofits often have aroused and fueled the negative stereotype of the older person by only showing frail older people who because of their physical/mental conditions are takers rather than showing older people as givers who support so much through their volunteer efforts.
The history of social service agencies serving older adults includes such agencies' employing the stereotype of the old focused on food, clothing and shelter needs (which are on the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need
) rather than demonstrating how such agencies can assist elders reach self-actualization as students, artists, mentors, jocks, etc. who give back to the community in these new roles.
The negative image of aging has been self-perpetuating because it has been the one that has been used since the field of aging became a reality. The case statements for help have been made on the backs of the frail minority rather than perpetuating the image of the magic the majority of older adults bring into their lives, the lives of the young and the lives of the frail. Frailty has been viewed as the lifeline to the money tree.
In the 80’s, when America was in a recession, the edict to target Older Americans Act dollars to the frail, the very old, the very poor, the minorities and the very isolated instantly turned senior centers, the community institution for the elderly, into a welfare destination rather than a community one. This mandate did more to ruin the notion of community accessibility for all older people than anything before or since.
But this image has meant also that a senior center has been seen the place to get free food, play cards and bingo. Once you understand the negative marketing senior centers have received you begin to understand that there is no way that most older people want to go or be seen there. At the same time the senior center is a very important community asset and if it dies, it simply will have to be reborn.
As our communities age, the need will grow to have a community focal point for older people that they and their families can access. There will be a greater need to acclimate those who are leaving the workforce as to what their options are to live their next life stage successfully. Because there are some senior centers that have not broadened their vision over time nor moved out of their one room in a church basement, they have become the dinosaurs and, like all dinosaurs before them, they will become extinct.
But there are centers that have grown and stretched themselves to meet the many demands of both the well and the frail. These centers need to be supported and we must find a new name for those that survive. The term senior center needs to change – not the work that they are doing.
It is crucial to recognize that community-based services need to balance the giving vs. the taking of their members because older people are a tremendous community resource but need some supports to maintain their independence and ability to give.
5.) The infra-structure needs of community based services must be understood and supported by the community, the government and other funders.
There is very little recognition of what is needed to make community-based services successful. What happened with donations made after September 11, 2001 is a perfect illustration of what the general population doesn’t understand in terms of the money and staff it takes to make sure that people who need help get the appropriate supports.
In addition, in today’s world a whole new layer of expectation has been put in place. That is the need to have new technology to be able to operate it successfully. The demand for outcome measurements is there but the person who can put the information together in the way funding sources want it generally is not part of the process. The staffs are too small; the pay, generally at the bottom of the barrel; and adding additional training to become technologically proficient to their schedule is not a realistic alternative.
Another infrastructure concern is that those of us who entered the field of aging in the early to mid-seventies are “moving on” and aging is not at the top of the list as a field that new college graduates are eager to enter. They have been fed the image of the needy elderly rather than the image of aging positively. Gerontology programs have not been highly promoted. There are rarely individual financial incentives and the agencies that they would work for are poorly funded and staffed. How are we going to make the field one that is exciting and inviting?
Isolation, language, image and infrastructure are the most pressing philosophical and practical concerns facing community-based services for those 55+ today and in the very near future. To understand what the quality of these services, classes and activities should be, put yourself in the settings we are discussing and think through what it would have to be like for you to feel comfortable. This reality check will help you to begin to understand what needs to happen if we are to create the appropriate framework around the services we want to provide.