Several weeks ago, immediately after Congressman Paul Ryan was named as the Vice Presidential candidate on the Republican ticket, he appeared alongside his mother at a Florida senior citizen community. My initial reaction was that it was a pretty transparent preemptive strike to head off the predictable criticism of his plan to "voucherize" Medicare. But I want to be careful here. I don't question the fact that the man loves and honors his mother. And I am sure she loves him right back, and is proud as can be that her son has been blessed with such an honor. I mean, what could be better? And if that were, indeed, the sole motivation behind the appearance, that's cool, right? But when you spend time with as many seniors as I do, you get a sense from many of them that they know what's going on. Years of experience (and many Presidential campaigns) have provided them with a kind of sixth sense about what politicians are up to.
"Now that the Medicare issue is front and center in this contest, and now that they know how important these 29 votes are... now you notice and embrace us?!" asked Carl Hefferon (83) of St. Francis Manor, located in Vero Beach, Florida, referring, of course, to the all-important 29 electoral votes that are up-for-grabs in "Florida, Florida, Florida."
"Listen. I understand why these guys scamper to do their best to get us in line behind them," Carl continued. "It's politics -- I get it. But it bothers me. And if they think we don't see through what they're saying most of the time, they're in for a big surprise," he added.
It should be no surprise why both campaigns are focusing a good deal of their efforts on -- and devoting millions of dollars of resources toward -- the elder sector right now. A glance at some interesting statistics reveals just how powerfully this group of individuals expresses itself, politically:
From 1996 through 2008, the percentage of people aged 65 or older who voted in U.S. Presidential elections averaged between 67%-69% -- consistently higher than any other age grouping.
It is an inescapable fact: Senior citizens vote. They care. And as the years unfold, with the aging of the baby boomers and the resulting senior demographic explosion, this sector's voting power is going to reach unprecedented levels. Add to that the prospect of seniors' healthcare security being fiddled with in the coming years and guess what? Any senior in that remaining 30% who is on the fence about voting this year may well be looking to pull that lever, tap that computer screen or punch that card (with gusto, please!) on Election Day.
Still, as interested as I am with what transpires on Election Day -- and I am extremely interested, as all of us should be this time -- I am actually more concerned with what happens once the election is over. When the votes are counted and we have our newest governmental structure in place, who will be paying attention to seniors then?
Now, I understand that there may be some readers out there thinking, "But I adore my parents and grandparents, and I certainly treat them with love and respect," and so on. But my experience in speaking with audiences around the country has demonstrated that most folks would agree that, as a whole, our culture tends to pull the shades down when it comes to how we treat our seniors. Our lightning speed, "quest for wrinkle-free everything" mindset often works to nudge our elders to the sidelines, where they remain relatively invisible until they are called into action for special occasions. Perhaps it's the anniversary of the Normandy invasion, or Veterans or Memorial Day. Perhaps a movie is released, such as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Red, Cocoon or Driving Miss Daisy. Or perhaps it's when they are needed for precious votes that will help to secure the big prize... as they are now. Because the fact is, in some respects, it is our older citizens who now hold the key to this country's future. And the politicians know this.
But here is an idea worth noting -- something that many in our youth-oriented culture many not be noticing in the midst of all the political hullabaloo. The concept is this: Older people are incredible, and not only because these individuals represent a bridge to power for political parties. The senior community is a precious, largely undiscovered, natural resource -- one overflowing with extraordinary stories about wisdom gained and lessons learned. Unfortunately, in many ways, we are all missing the boat in terms of what we can learn from these individuals. And that is a shame.
Here's a suggestion for you: The next time you see a political candidate wrapping his or her arms around an older person, demonstrating all the signs of classic pandering, I ask you to pause for a moment. Take a deep breath. Notice what you are observing. And better than that, on Wednesday, November 7 -- the day after the election -- when you are in the coffee shop ordering your latte and toasted bagel, if you see an older person smiling at you, why not take a moment and go over to visit with him or her for awhile? I promise, you will not regret it.
It's time for us to engage seniors on a more consistent basis and in a more meaningful way.
It's time for us to change the way we view aging and older people.
Harry J. Getzov is the founder of Eldercation, and the author of the newly released award-winning book, "gOLD - The Extraordinary Side of Aging Revealed Through Inspiring Conversations." Follow Eldercation on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and check out Harry's blog, "Taking The Scenic Route."