The National Association of Area Agencies on Aging (n4a), which represents a network of more than 600 Area Agencies on Aging created by Congress to provide information about elder programs, services and housing options, recently released an impressive report titled "Making Your Community Livable for All Ages: What's Working!" that is a "must read" for those working to improve the quality of life for our country's seniors.
The report outlines key strategies for making communities more "age friendly" to enable senior citizens to remain independent and engaged in their golden years. Many of n4a's recommendations are what you might expect - i.e. improving transportation, recreation, healthcare and other daily living resources- but one in particular caught my attention: "revering older adults."
When it comes to respecting one's elders and helping them to age with dignity and support, America has a lot to learn from other cultures. As a country, we tend to idealize youth, and we don't fairly recognize or appreciate the wisdom and experience of those who marched through life before us as they do in China, India, and other countries. Arianna Huffington, the founder and editor of this publication, noted this dichotomy in her book, On Becoming Fearless:
Ten years ago I visited the monastery of Tharri on the island of Rhodes with my children. There, as in all of Greece, abbots are addressed by everyone as 'Geronda,' which means 'old man.' Abbesses are called 'Gerondissa.' Not exactly terms of endearment in my adopted home. The idea of honoring old age, indeed identifying it with wisdom and closeness to God, is in startling contrast to the way we treat aging in America.
The n4a report addresses this issue head-on:
"Our society needs to undergo a radical shift in the way that it often perceives aging and older adults....livability initiatives should seek to change people's perceptions of their own aging and the way they view aging in the broader community. Older adults and their caregivers represent a valuable but under-tapped resource, as well as an important market segment. Developing this social asset can both meet the needs of older adults and promote local growth."
While our tendency is to view older adults as liabilities who present many economic burdens, they also are assets whose insights and perspectives should be taken into consideration, and not only on matters relating to elder care. As n4a noted in its report, there is a strong economic motive to view our senior citizens as valuable members of the community who are figuratively "sitting on a pot of gold":
...If the age 50 and over population were an economy, it would be the third largest in the world, right after the U.S. and China. Boomers currently control 70 percent of consumer spending in the U.S., and older shoppers outspent younger shoppers by one trillion dollars in 2010, with grandparents spending $27.5 billion on grandchildren.
From volunteering and mentoring to giving back to the community, America's senior citizens are truly valuable resources worthy of support and appreciation. Kudos to n4a for its impressive documentation of this overlooked truth.