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Age Is an Asset: Let's Use It

3 ways to change the conversation about aging from burden to benefit

By Donna Butts and SCAN Foundation

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. 

Wake up and smell the demographics. Our society is aging. What an opportunity! We get to create the world we want to live in as we grow older.

To me that’s a world in which older-adult elders can contribute their talents and ideas at work, home and in society, and not be left on the sidelines. It’s vitally important. There are 72 million boomers. Together, we represent an unprecedented increase in older human capital asset. It’s an asset we can’t afford to leave dormant.

If just 10 percent of boomers gave up four hours each week to volunteer it would generate over $900 million in new human capital assets per year. That’s moving the conversation from burden to benefit.

So, too, is recognizing the contributions older relatives make to their families. A 2012 study found that 62 percent of grandparents provided financial support or monetary gifts to grandchildren. At the same time, 23 percent of the child care for children under 6 is provided by grandparents.

How do we help move the discussion about aging from burden to benefit? Let’s begin by smashing silos that segregate generations and prevent them from contributing to each other’s well-being. Three thoughts to consider:

1. Make Giving Back Simple

We need to make it easy to continue to contribute to society as we age. Let’s be more creative and take a multi-prong, multiyear approach to asking people to give back.

How? What if every time an older adult gets a prescription filled, a second prescription is included: a prescription for happiness. This prescription would list five reasons why volunteering is good for a person’s health and five to 10 specific volunteer opportunities in their city or town.

Let’s not stop there. What if when people apply for Social Security retirement benefits the application includes one more question: Would you like to volunteer and help make your community a better place for all generations?

Currently the Social Security website includes retirement planning tools and information about elder fraud and abuse. Why not include information about elder opportunities?


2. Address Age Segregation

We need to challenge age segregated policies. Good public policy uses resources to connect generations, not separate them. Why should a community’s budget be stretched trying to provide unique senior centers, teen centers, schools and recreation centers?

Ask your Mayor or City Council to establish an Intergenerational Advisory Council. Then, use an intergenerational solutions lens when looking at problems that may seem to only to impact one generation. For example, provide student debt reduction for those young people willing to provide services to help older adults age in place in their own homes.

An intergenerational lens can help weave and strengthen our social compact.

3. Celebrate Multigenerational Families Living Under One Roof

We need to celebrate older adults’ contributions to strong families. The number of multigenerational households in the United States increased by 10 percent as a result of the great recession. These families may have come together by need, but they’ve stayed together by choice.

A 2011 survey of multigenerational households found 82 percent agreed that the arrangement enhanced bonds or relationships among family members. While there can be stress at times, the large majority reported it made it easier for caregiving across the lifespan and helped members out financially. Still, as a society we shake our heads and say such arrangements represent failure. Why don’t we celebrate strong families and the right to choose to live happily under one roof?

Together, we can change the conversation from burden to benefit strengthening our communities, families and country for generations to come.

Donna Butts
Donna Butts is executive director of Generations United, which gathers people of different ages to work together toward a common purpose. She was a 2015 Next Avenue Influencer in Aging. Read More
By SCAN Foundation
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