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OPINION: Make May the Older Americans Contribute Month

Why the Graying Green founder says Older Americans Month needs a refresh

By Michael Smyer

May needs a makeover. Since 1963, every president has designated the month of May as Older Americans Month, but aging in America has changed a lot over the last 56 years. That’s why I think it’s time that Older Americans Month gets a refresh.

Older Americans Month
Credit: Adobe

When President Kennedy made the initial designation, about a third of older adults in America lived in poverty. Medicare and Medicaid didn’t exist. The Older Americans Month designation was one way to call attention to the plight of the nation’s elderly.

This May, in contrast, the theme for Older Americans Month is connect, create and contribute. As the founder of Graying Green: Climate Action for an Aging World, an Encore Public Voices Fellow and a Bucknell University professor, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about that last one — contribute — and what older adults could contribute to society in these times. How might we make May the Older Americans Contribute Month?

Making a Contribution to Reduce Climate Change

When it comes to climate change, for example, the facts are clear: it’s a serious, imminent threat and one that older Americans could contribute to repel.

We older adults can use our circles of influence for climate action in many ways.

Earlier this month, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services released a climate change report concluding: “Human actions threaten more species with global extinction now than ever before. An average of around 25% of species in assessed animal and plant groups are threatened…suggesting that around 1 million species already face extinction, many within decades, unless action is taken…”

How might older adults contribute to action on climate change?

Starting With Circles of Influence

We can start with our own circles of influence. The students I teach often ask me how older folks know so many people. I point out that we have lived more than three times as long as they have, so our circles of influence are bigger and our connections are deeper.

For example, when my mother-in-law, Helen Piper, died in Wichita, Kansas, at age 95, 300 people attended her funeral. She had cultivated “younger” friends in their 60s, 70s and 80s, extending her circles of influence across several generations. These were not just social media friends sharing “likes,” but people she’d known through her volunteer activities since moving to Wichita in her early 60s.

We older adults can use our circles of influence for climate action in many ways.

Take Kay Cramer, a community activist friend of mine in central Pennsylvania who decided that she would use her time and talent to focus on climate issues. She began by joining the Citizens Climate Lobby and the Climate Reality Project.  Each of these groups is a national climate action organization with local chapters. One focuses on developing bipartisan support for a carbon tax; the other on grassroots leadership and action on climate issues. Armed with information and training, Cramer is now leading workshops for her church and other groups in her community.

Mobilizing a Continuing Care Community

Pat Warner, another friend of mine, lives just outside of Boston and recently moved into a continuing care community, a circle of influence for her. Warner asked me to come do a Graying Green workshop at her community, showing residents how to take active steps on climate change. More than 40 residents turned out.

They not only committed to individual actions, they followed up with their administrators. Now the community is composting food waste, purchasing power from renewable sources and ramping up its recycling programs.

Rev. Jim Antal, a colleague, focused on his circles of influence at work. He recently retired from serving as the minister and president of the Massachusetts United Church of Christ (UCC). In that role, he wrote the 2017 General Synod resolution that urged UCC churches and members to speak out about the “moral issue” of climate change. These days, Antal continues to use his influence in church communities through his writings, preaching and consulting with congregations concerned about climate justice.


Talking With Kids and Grandkids

Of course, for many of us, our families are a primary circle of influence.

Recently, children like Greta Thunberg in Sweden and her counterparts in the United States have gotten attention for asking their parents and grandparents to prioritize climate issues when they vote. What if grandparents took the lead in their extended families, not only pledging to do this in the 2020 elections, but also talking with their adult children and their grandkids about the commitment and why it’s important?

This month, rather than solely honoring current and future older Americans, ask yourself a simple question: How do you want to be remembered? What do you want your legacy to be?

Whether you’re already older or an elder of the future, this question is especially important now. Psychologist Lisa Zaval and her colleagues found that asking yourself about your legacy positively affects your behavior and beliefs about climate change.

Just asking the question gets you to picture your future self and the world you will leave behind.

Older Americans Contribute Month

It’s time to make May the Older Americans Contribute Month. And it’s time to use the talent and experience of older adults to tackle climate change.

As climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe put it: “We don’t have a hundred years to fix climate change...We have to fix climate change with the people we have right now…”

And that must include older adults.

(Next Avenue invites opinion pieces that reflect a range of perspectives. Doing so helps our readers learn about views from a multitude of experts.)

Michael Smyer is an Encore Public Voices Fellow and a professor of psychology at Bucknell University.  Read More
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