The face of American society is changing, with people living longer than ever before. Yet right now our nation lacks a system of care and support that would enable older adults to age with dignity and independence. Vulnerable seniors need more affordable and accessible options for receiving care and support in their homes so that they don’t have to end up in a nursing home.
Fulfilling this need will take unprecedented levels of public involvement, including getting engaged in our neighborhoods and communities, and at the state and federal levels. Following are 10 ways you can help to ensure that a system of care is available for you and your loved ones should you ever need it.
As an individual:
1. Become the new face of aging. Challenge negative stereotypes about growing older by maintaining an active role in your own community. The notion of a senior retiring to a rocking chair is obsolete. Many of today’s seniors played a key role in our nation’s most important social movements, from free speech to civil rights, and can transform the care system for themselves, their loved ones, and all Americans. Resolve to remain active and involved, personally and politically, regardless of your physical abilities.
2. Take charge of how you want to age. Make a plan that includes where and how you will live as you grow older. Think about what you might need if you require daily support. Choose someone you trust to be a surrogate decision-maker who will honor your health care wishes if you cannot make decisions for yourself. Gather a list of important contacts, including professionals, family members and friends who can provide support in a time of need. Put this information in an accessible place, such as near the refrigerator or telephone. For suggestions on how to start, see our 10 Things Every Family Should Know About Aging With Dignity and Independence.
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3. Speak up about the kind of care and treatment that you do or don’t want. Talk with your doctor and loved ones now. Consider filling out an advance directive or a Five Wishes form so your desires are known and documented. For suggestions on how to talk with your doctor, check our 10 Things to Discuss With Your Doctor to Promote Aging With Dignity and Independence. For tips on starting this dialog with family members and loved ones, see our 10 Conversations to Plan for Aging With Dignity and Independence.
In your neighborhood:
4. Talk to your neighbors, especially older adults living nearby. If you have older neighbors who live alone, check in on them from time to time. Find out if they are getting the kind of support and services they need to live well in the community. By recognizing their needs, you could become a valuable resource and help connect them with important services in the community. This may seem small, but it can make a big difference in the life of an older adult.
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5. Become a source of knowledge for transforming care where you live. Reach out to your local Area Agency on Aging, senior center or community center to learn about the kind of services they offer that could help a loved one who may need help in the future. Also, public libraries can provide valuable information about local community resources. Share this information with family members and neighbors, so they know they are not alone. For more information, see our 10 Resources to Help Prepare for Aging with Dignity and Independence.
In your community:
6. Stand up and be heard. Find out if there are local organizations where you can express your thoughts, concerns and experiences about growing older and the need for accessible and affordable support services. Check your local senior and community centers, which often hold meetings to discuss civic issues. If local civic, religious or other leaders are not talking about ways to help older people live safe and well in your community, find out why and encourage them to start making aging issues a priority.
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7. Take a leadership role in getting organized. Form a community group that is engaged in what is happening in your area. Get neighbors involved, start a phone tree or form a local network of people interested in working together to make your community more livable for all older adults. Consider starting a local dialog through a town hall meeting or by writing a letter to the editor of your local paper.
At the state and federal level:
8. Find out what your state leaders are doing to improve long-term care. Many states are facing budget cutbacks and trimming programs that serve seniors. Decisions being made today could change the availability of care you or a loved one may need tomorrow. Learn about the facts and issues in your state and make your voice heard by talking with current representatives (or those seeking your vote).
9. Stay on top of changes at the federal level as a result of health reform. While health care and daily support for older people happen at the local level, many programs and services are shaped by decisions made in Washington, D.C. For example, the federal health-reform law allows the government to work better with states and communities to find new ways of improving long-term care for older adults and people with disabilities. Also, discussions are happening every day in Congress about potential changes to Medicare (health insurance for older people) and Medicaid (health coverage for low-income individuals) that could affect you and your loved ones. Reach out to your Congressional representatives, U.S. senators and the president to share your concerns.
In the online community:
10. Harness the power of social media. Regardless of where you live, social media can be an ideal place to learn about, discuss and connect with others on issues related to growing older. There is an increasing boomer presence online; websites like Facebook and Twitter can provide a platform to share your voice. A simple search for the phrase "long-term care" on Twitter or Facebook is a great way to start. You can also check out Next Avenue's long-term care planning area or the National Institute of Aging's News of Note. And you can follow The SCAN Foundation through our website or on Twitter and Facebook.