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Opinion

OPINION: Older Shouldn’t Mean Kept Separate

Why it's crucial to keep people 60+ integrated in our communities


(This article was provided through The OpEd Project, whose mission is to increase the range of voices and quality of ideas we hear in the world.)

The holidays are here! Fun times for all! But for many older people, the holidays are not so fun and can be a sad, lonely and stressful time because so many of us experience shrinking friendship networks and feel increasingly socially isolated as we age.

This is why holidays put a sobering light on recent research out of Harvard that states “Humans of the future will live decades longer than we do now.” Live longer? Many older people are not sure this is such a good thing, and younger people wonder what this means for them.

Members of a senior center in the South Bronx are already dubious about later life as it exists now. “People don’t see us, don’t care what we think, don’t feel we have anything left to contribute,” said Alba, a 79-year-old senior center member.

Frank, 72, attends a senior center in Brooklyn and describes his life as sitting alone on his sofa in his studio apartment watching TV, going to the senior center for lunch and perhaps Bingo, and then returning home for more time on the sofa in front of the TV. Said Frank, “I am just waiting,” his voice trailing off.

Many Aging Services Cause Age Segregation

Our society provides many programs and services for older people, and most are restricted by age. The result is that aging services hide and isolate older people in senior centers, senior housing and other age-restricted settings that seek to meet the “needs” of older people. Thus, as people enter older adulthood, we begin to “retire” from the society at large and are increasingly seen in a new light — as service recipients, causing us to lose our sense of value, self worth and place in society.

Our society provides many programs and services for older people, and most are restricted by age. The result is that aging services hide and isolate older people.”

As Cornell University professor Karl Pillemer told The Huffington Post, “This is the most age-segregated society that’s ever been. Vast numbers of younger people are likely to live into their 90s without contact with older people. As a result, young people’s view of aging is highly unrealistic and absurd.” This is not good for people or communities.

A growing body of research is revealing that this segregated approach to aging isolates and devalues old age and negatively impacts our health.

How Age Segregation Impacts Health

Researchers at Yale have discovered that older people who lack a clear sense of purpose and meaning without a valued role to play in their communities become increasingly isolated, and the impact is the same as smoking 15 cigarettes every day over one’s lifetime.

On the other hand, older people who remain engaged in their communities in ways that are meaningful to them and are valued and appreciated by other community members have:

  • Reduced need for medications for conditions such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol
  • Improved mental health
  • Higher likelihood of recovering from disabilities associated with aging
  • Better brain functioning
  • Increased longevity by an average of 7.5 years

Through work led by my nonprofit organization, United Neighborhood Houses in New York, older people are mobilized to work in teams to address local challenges in their community. This gave Alba, who grew up in a rural farming area of Puerto Rico, the opportunity to get involved in an effort to start a community food garden.

To her surprise, she quickly learned that other people in her community were interested and wanted to know what she was doing. Community members offered to help and sought out her expertise around growing, preparing and eating fresh food. Alba went from being quiet and retiring to being active and beloved.

Frank is involved in a similar effort in Brooklyn, working with another team of older people who decided to help a small local food pantry offer fresh food. This food pantry now serves hundreds more in the community; long lines form whenever the food pantry opens.

Frank’s work to help lead the growth of the food pantry — and to manage the long lines — addressed a tremendous need for food and nutrition support in his community; he was dubbed ‘the Mayor of East Fifth Street.”

Frank suffered a severe heart attack three years later, and he readily admits that he would not have had the will or desire to recover had it not been for all of the community members who stopped by and showed how much he mattered to them and the local community. Frank is back, and says that he feels stronger than ever.

Keeping People Engaged in Communities

Soon 1 in 3 adults in the United States will be age 60 or older. It is time to break down the walls that segregate older people from the rest of us. This will be good for the individual health of older people — and all of us as we age — and will promote the greater good of society as older people continue to contribute the vast reservoir of skills, talents, experience and knowledge they have gained over their lifetimes.

Imagine the benefits to our society if the millions of older people across our nation had opportunities to work together to address important community issues.

How might this happen? Aging service professionals and policy makers must work to break down the walls that segregate us by age. One way would be for funders and government contracts to support programs that position and support the involvement of older people in the broader community, e.g., a new version of Senior Corps wherein teams of older people work to address important local issues alongside people of all ages.

The aging services profession must come to believe that a core element of its work to meet the needs of older people is to develop programs, practices and pathways that ensure older people remain fully integrated within the fabric of local communities. It needs to do this in ways that vest later life with meaning, purpose and value, and make old age a destination we would all like to reach — and holidays a time for celebration throughout our lifespan.

By Terry Kaelber
Terry Kaelber is an Encore Public Voices Fellow and the Director of the Institute for Empowered Aging at United Neighborhood Houses, a policy and social change organization representing 42 neighborhood settlement houses.

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