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How Learning About Aging Made Me a Better Human (and Can Make You One, Too)

My Age Boom Academy fellowship led me to the CARE initiative

By Janeane Bernstein

A few months ago, I was fortunate to get a fellowship with Columbia University's 2021 Age Boom Academy, whose focus was combating loneliness in aging. I was left with a new sense of purpose: a desire to be a part of a solution for greater societal cohesion, compassion and improved mental health.

A group of people sitting outside at a restaurant holding umbrellas. Next Avenue, learning about aging
A small group of Bloomingdale Aging in Place members gather for a "Dining in the Neighborhood" outing  |  Credit: Bloomingdale Aging in Place (BAiP)

To do this, I created what I call the CARE initiative. CARE stands for Connection, Attention, Resilience and Education. I think we can all become better humans by focusing on it.

Here's what it's all about, some examples of groups and research helping older adults become less lonely, and how to join the CARE initiative to become a better human.

The CARE Initiative

First, a definition of the CARE components:

CONNECTION – connecting with one another in meaningful ways, intergenerationally, breaking habits of disconnect (such as technology addictions and not being present with others) and becoming more mindful and compassionate

ATTENTION – prioritizing mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health

RESILIENCE – building mental, physical,and emotional strength to adapt during challenging times

EDUCATION – becoming knowledgeable and empathetic to deconstruct pre-existing mindsets like ageism, racism and sexism

Connection

Throughout the uncertainty, anxiety, loneliness and isolation created by COVID-19, social entrepreneurs, nonprofits, researchers and community-based organizations have implemented strategies that foster connection in our unprecedented time of disconnect.

The New York City all-volunteer neighborhood community, Bloomingdale Aging in Place (BAiP), shows how a thriving section of the Upper West Side of Manhattan has created synergy among roughly 1,200 residents before and during the pandemic, enabling them to lead safer, more connected lives and helping older residents age in place.

As the pandemic subsides, BAiP neighbors are rediscovering each other in person.

The BAiP neighbor network makes it easy for residents to find one another and get together virtually or in person, share information, socialize, learn new skills (such as tech training during COVID-19), discuss issues related to aging and help one another. 

Most BAiP activities occur in neighbors' apartments or city parks. During the pandemic, neighbors found each other virtually for exercise classes, movie discussions and other conversation groups that continued to meet while people were remote.

As the pandemic subsides, BAiP neighbors are rediscovering each other in person.

BAiP is also a rich resource for spousal caregivers who want to connect with peers going through similar situations, receive emotional support and find a diversion in a social group.

A BAiP committee called Neighbors Helping neighbors, or N2N, lets participants accompany someone to a medical appointment, check in with a friendly visit or just offer a helping hand.

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Caitlin M. Hawke, project lead on the Age Boom Academy and the senior science and strategy officer of the Columbia Aging Center, served on BAiP's board directors and was co-chair of the group's roughly 1,500 annual social activities, managing over 100 volunteers engaging hundreds of neighbors. 

During the Age Boom Academy, BAiP members were asked to share their experiences in their synergistic neighborhood community. Here's what a few said:

"It gave me a lasting, intergenerational relationship with a young lady that I was joined with, eighty yoga classes to keep my body moving, and a book club" - Lee Apt

"Year after year, all winter, a group of people would come once a week; it was so much fun."

"I loved meeting one particular person. We both like to cook, so we go on a weekly walk and then we buy vegetables and fruits and decide what we're going to cook for the week." - Nili Bader

"I tried to organize an ice-skating group of BAIP members, but people were afraid of falling, and Caitlin suggested partnering with the youth hostel. Year after year, all winter, a group of people would come once a week; it was so much fun. It got me out exercising, meeting people and it was wonderful." - Miriam Duhan  

Hawke says BAiP "is highly replicable in the right hands. It requires some sweat equity. That's the cost — the effort from neighbors to organize it. But there is no cost to any neighbor to join. The offerings are completely free.

Attention

Examples of recent initiatives focused on the Attention part of CARE include schools with intergenerational classrooms creating opportunities to deconstruct ageism and promote the value of older adults.

The AARP Foundation Experience Corps exemplifies this with the creation of its impactful intergenerational volunteer-based tutoring program, where adults over 50 tutor inner-city children in reading skills. Not only do the students benefit from this program, but so do the teachers and volunteers.

Experience Corps conducted a Social-Emotional Learning Evaluation which indicated positive changes in "personal responsibility, relationship skills and decision making."

Other thriving AARP attention initiatives include participating in federal government's Foster Grandparents and Senior Companions programs, run by 2021 Influencer in Aging Atalaya Sergi. They help improve overall health and well-being of the older volunteers, while providing them with meaning and purpose.

Resilience

At the Age Boom Academy, gerontology professor Sara Czaja, director of the Center on Aging and Behavioral Research at Weill Cornell Medicine, discussed her research on how technology can help older adults become more resilient, and live happier, healthier lives while combating loneliness and social isolation.

Czaja cited one pandemic example of a 98-year-old woman who couldn't attend services at her synagogue, but learned to enjoy connecting with her congregation online.

For technology to make older adults more resilient, Czaja said, we need to ensure that it "is useful, affordable, accessible and there is proper training."

Education

Educating people of all ages about ageism (kids and adults), and helping to reduce that problem, is a key part of the CARE initiative.

For technology to make older adults more resilient, Czaja said, we need to ensure that it "is useful, affordable, accessible and there is proper training."

Becca R. Levy, a professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health, professor of psychology at Yale University and a Next Avenue Influencer in Aging, has found that negative age stereotypes can lead to mental health issues, such as depression, and worsen cognitive health, physical health, and increase loneliness and social isolation.

Harvard's Graduate School of Education created the Making Caring Common Project and its vision resonated with me: "Our vision is a world in which children learn to care about others and the common good, treat people well day to day, come to understand and seek fairness and justice, and do what is right even at times at a cost to themselves," the project's description says.

The pandemic exacerbated our loneliness epidemic and took a toll on the mental, physical and emotional health of millions of people of all ages. We need to take this time for introspection and focus on social change, building a more connected, compassionate, empathetic society that prioritizes connections, mental health, diversity and resilience strategies.

We must value the importance of connection during a time of disconnect, tuning in to others who are vulnerable and hardest hit and creating opportunities to build resilience and educate people of all ages about inclusivity.

Janeane Bernstein
Janeane Bernstein is a writer, speaker, radio host/producer at KUCI 88.9 fm and host of the new online series "Outside the Box." She was a 2021 Age Boom Academy Fellow. In 2019, her book "Get the Funk Out! $%ˆ& Happens, What to Do Next!," was published by Post Hill Press and distributed by Simon and Schuster. Her website is Janeanebernstein.com. Read More
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