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Toward an ‘Invincible Summer’ of Later Life

Cherish wisdom, and other advice from a Next Avenue Influencer in Aging

(Editor’s Note: This article is part of Next Avenue’s 2015 Influencers in Aging project honoring 50 people changing how we age and think about aging.)

This reflection is based on 40+ years in aging services with two great organizations as I now retire as the LeadingAge CEO and president. The decision to retire changed my perspective. If I could wave a magic wand and change aging in America here is what I would do:

Change Attitudes

Baseball great Satchel Paige once asked something like, “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?” I would change cultural attitudes to define aging as a process and a perspective — not arbitrary chronological milestones with associated stereotypes.

Put on the Brakes

Will Rogers once mused that if you wanted to slow the aging process down, make it go through Congress. Yes, I’d slow it down. As I move into what is conventionally known as retirement, it has happened all too fast. I recall a Jewish admonition, “We get too quick old and too late smart.”

I have no regrets about my career, though I no doubt could be smarter if I knew then what I know now. Sometimes, I wish a new generation of leaders would listen to what I’d be smarter about. But I still have gotten too quick old. Time flies when you’re having fun…

One of our members, sponsored by an American Indian tribe, calls their nursing home “library.”

More and Better Roles

The late Howard Washburn, a founder of what is now LeadingAge, reflected on a study about the future of aging in America and the implications of the looming demographic shift. He said that the founders prophesied that the fundamental problems of an aging society would be the potential for mass loneliness and boredom, which would generate many of the health problems that we see today. I wish the nonprofit and corporate sectors would create more life-fulfilling roles that involve thinking, mentoring, volunteering and creative expression to eliminate loneliness and boredom.

A New Financing Model

I wish I could change how aging and disability services are financed — a priority of LeadingAge for the last decade and probably the next.

Years ago, when I was a new nursing home administrator at Wesley Woods in Atlanta, a sandwich generation daughter came to me to apply for charitable care for her mother, who was out of money but still had too much income for Medicaid. On the application she listed an asset of farmland, which had been in the family for generations. She said the land was farmed and the family needed the farm’s income to support grandchildren whose parents were having a hard time. I denied her the charitable support because I told her our donors aren’t asked to help preserve an estate or support grandchildren, however needed that support might be.

I look forward to a long-term care financing plan so families don’t have to choose between the needs of younger generations and the risk of going broke themselves.

Celebrating Wisdom

One of our members, sponsored by an American Indian tribe, calls their nursing home “library.” It’s a place where ancestors live and pass on knowledge and wisdom to future generations.

I look forward to the day that long-term care institutions can be thought of as repositories of wisdom and experience — not dreaded places to live in or visit.

Albert Camus once said, “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.” I look forward to an America where every provider plans and operates like it is in the invincible summer business and every senior is supported in a personal quest to discover what a later life of invincible summer can really mean.

And my final perspective? I’m probably too late smart as I grow too quick old.

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