I don’t know about you, but I’m weary of reading articles about how retirement may be lousy in coming years for many Americans.
So I was especially cheered to learn about the government’s new Unleash the Power of Age Challenge, celebrating remarkable people over 60 doing remarkable things. This week, you can vote for your favorites among the 14 finalists to help choose the three winners.
The challenge is the brainchild of the U.S. Administration for Community Living, a year-old agency that includes the Administration on Aging, and the culmination of Older Americans Month (a creation of President John F. Kennedy, 50 years ago).
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A New Way to Celebrate Older Americans Month
“We wanted to do something a little different this year” to recognize the positive aspects of aging, said Edwin L. Walker, deputy assistant secretary of the Administration on Aging.
“The competition," said contest judge Gay Hanna, executive director for the National Center for Creative Aging, "has produced inspiring stories of the ways people are continuing their careers, improving their communities, being creative and contradicting stereotypes.”
Tom Endres, director of the Aging Networks Volunteer Collaborative and another challenge judge, added, “These people are real examples of active living and drive in the later stages of life.”
On Monday, a panel of six judges selected 14 finalists from 50 nominations. The public has until Tuesday, May 28, to cast their votes. Winners will be announced Friday, May 31; their profiles will be featured on the Older Americans Month website.
A Look at the 14 Challenge Finalists
The inspiring nominees were volunteers and paid professionals over 60 who are positive role models making significant contributions locally or globally. Here are brief descriptions of each:
Jeanne Wease of Crown Point, Ind., is a former teacher and Principal of the Year who has spent a decade as a court-appointed advocate for abused and neglected children. She also works to help local elders stay in their homes for as long as possible. “Retired teachers are a force of nature,” Hanna said.
Emily Lewis of Boulder, Colo., is a staff member at Boulder County AAA’s LGBT Elder Outreach Program and helped create its award-winning Project Visibility training for senior service providers and friends and families of LGBT elders.
“LGBT elders have very specific challenges," said Alecia Torres de Valdez, development director for the National Center for Creative Aging, "and the work Emily Lewis has done to address them is fantastic.”
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Mary Ann Sterling of Melbourne, Fla., founded Grandparents Raising Grandchildren of Brevard County, a nonprofit agency that provides training, support and resource information to caregivers. Sterling raised her grandson from the time he was 6 after her daughter was killed by a hit-and-run driver; he’s now an attorney.
Patricia Sussman of San Francisco, had a casual discussion with some friends and neighbors in 2006 about how they wanted to age and the ways their parents were aging. That talk led Sussman to co-found Ashby Village, a 270-member San Francisco East Bay group that’s part of the growing Village movement helping older people live independently in their homes. At 75, she volunteers there frequently.
Dr. J. Robert Buchanan of Evanston, Ill., retired from his job as chief executive of Massachusetts General to devote most of his retirement to establishing Western-quality health care services and health professions education programs in Pakistan, Afghanistan and East Africa. He does this by working with the Aga Khan Development Network, a group headed by His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of 15 million Shia Ismaili Muslims.
“Dr. Buchanan's story shows that an older person can continue a career after retirement in a global way,” Torres de Valdez said.
Ross Smith of Fresno, Calif., is a key member of Bringing Broken Neighborhoods Back to Life, which works with police and faith-based groups to lower crime in southwest Fresno. He and his wife help create a Santa’s Village each year for children of families in impoverished neighborhoods.
Bob Burt of Orinda, Calif., is a retired higher-education executive who tutors first-graders each week for Experience Corps Bay Area, a program of volunteers age 50 and older.
Lolo Sarnoff of Bethesda, Md., founded Arts for the Aging (AFTA) in 1988 at age 72, a nonprofit engaging older adults in health improvement and life enhancement through the arts. The group, known for its work with Alzheimer's patients, now employs 12 professional artists who lead 600 workshops annually in 20 senior day care centers. At 97, Sarnoff is considered the spirit of AFTA.
Carol Aastad of Lancaster, Pa., is a former advertising woman who was named Volunteer of the Year in 2011 by CASA of Lancaster County (Court Appointed Special Advocates) and Milagro House, which provides housing, education and counseling for homeless mothers and their children. Now president of the board of Milagro House, Aastad is "an example of how to have an impact on children," said Torres de Valdez, "and for children to have positive interactions with older people.”
June Wesbury, a retired certified public accountant and resident of Willow Valley Retirement Communities in Willow Street, Pa., is her county’s unpaid regional coordinator for the AARP Tax-Aide program — the largest, free, volunteer-run tax assistance and preparation service in the nation. Last year, more than 3,000 citizens — many of them low-income retirees — benefited from her work.
“June is using the talents she honed over her career in the second half of her life,” Torres de Valdez said.
Shirley Cox Gordon of Independence, Va., was back volunteering at the Matthews Living History Farm Museum last year, at 82, six weeks after back surgery. She’s also a grant writer whose work helped her county receive several million dollars.
Epifano Vega Gonzalez of Puerto Rico is a 72-year-old guitar hero known as Vega who takes his musical talent and Catholic Social Services volunteers to long-term-care facilities, helping residents celebrate traditional, native Christmas parties. His music led an 81-year-old man suffering from depression to cry with joy and begin improvising verses to Vega’s songs.
Quinin Velez Rivera of Boston coordinates medical escort trips for a primarily Spanish-speaking elder community through her volunteer work for FriendshipWorks La Cadena de Amistad, a nonprofit dedicated to reduce social isolation. In the past year, she accompanied older residents to their medical appointments 172 times. Velez Rivera is also a “friendly visitor” for Friendship Works, visiting seven elderly people weekly.
“She’s helping older people overcome a top challenge: transportation,” Hanna said.
(MORE: 4 Paths to a More Fulfilling Retirement)
Robert Craig of Bridgewater, N.J., is a volunteer dynamo doing everything from helping out at Somerset Medical Center two days a week to delivering food to the homeless to mentoring four elementary school children. As community events chairman for Men Mentoring Men, a local support group, he coordinated the building of three homes for Habitat for Humanity.
Reminiscent of the Purpose Prize Winners
These 14 finalists reminded me of the Purpose Prize winners, people 60 and older chosen annually by Encore.org for their inspiring work improving their communities and the world. (I wrote a blog post about the 2012 winners and Next Avenue also has articles on each.) The next crop of winners will be chosen in late 2013.
I asked Marci Alboher, vice president at Encore.org and author of the Encore Career Handbook, for her view on the work being done by the extraordinary people nominated for the Unleash the Power of Age Challenge and the Purpose Prize.
“Never before has there been so much talent and experience available to tackle the world’s biggest problems, from hunger to homelessness and from education to the environment,” Alboher said. “All that wisdom and experience is an underutilized resource. It’s about time we mine it.”
I couldn’t agree more.
One last thing: Don’t forget to vote in the Unleash the Power of Age Challenge.
You can cast your ballot for as many of the 14 finalists as you want, but you can’t vote for anyone more than once. Your votes, however, will help make a powerful statement about aging in America.