As most readers of this blog know, May is “Older Americans Month” — a time set aside for us as Americans to honor our older citizens and to recognize them for the numerous and invaluable contributions and sacrifices that they have made to this Nation. In this Older Americans Month 2018, we are privileged to have a lot to celebrate: many more such fellow citizens than ever before in our history. In fact, in 2016 almost 65 million Americans were age 60 and older. That number is nearly 12 and a half million more than there were in 2009. In 1960, just three years before President Kennedy proclaimed the first Older Americans Month — called “Senior Citizens Month” then — and five years before the creation of Medicare and the enactment of the Older Americans Act, the decennial census counted approximately 16.6 million individuals as age 65 or older.
Knowing the history is a nice thing. Acknowledging that we really do have something to celebrate, and then doing so, is quite another. But we should take time to do just that! More Americans are having the opportunity to enjoy their “golden years.” The question is: Are they enjoying them? And if they are not, why not and what can we do to change that? If you are expecting that we are going to bring up the issue of senior hunger in relation to that question, you are mistaken. That’s not where we want to draw attention today.
The theme of this year’s Older Americans Month is “Engage at Every Age” and we believe that opens to door widely to contemplate just what “engage” means, and how engagement can be encouraged or achieved, and who should be enabling the engagement and where it can occur. We wonder, frankly, if the theme might be better stated as “Engage with Every Age.” More on that slight change of title to come.
Why is engagement so important? The answers are manifold, but here is the simplest and most compelling response: absent engagement, which we translate as “socialization,” seniors most likely will suffer. It’s intuitive that the lack of opportunities to socialize can lead to loneliness. What is not so well understood are the consequences of that loneliness. Among them is risk of death or functional decline as well as a whole host of serious health problems.
At NFESH we talk a great deal about risk factors for hunger threat. The research that we have commissioned and disseminated for years both identifies them and quantifies the number of seniors who experience them. We wonder what the tally would look like if we set out to enumerate the number of seniors plagued by loneliness. We imagine it would be jolting and certainly would surpass those affected by hunger. But here is the good news: Loneliness is easy to remedy and the treatment is widely available. As we said, it’s called socialization and the opportunities for seniors to experience and participate in it reside in every community. Those places are most commonly called “senior centers” and they are the very same venues where congregate nutrition programs operate. Yes, the chance to sit down together around a healthful meal is about much more than nutrition alone. One doesn’t need to suffer from hunger to benefit from it.
Now let’s take a look back at our suggestion regarding “Engage WITH Every Age.” The senior center offers much more than a prescription for those who are lonely. Centers also prevent loneliness in the first place by offering any individual age 60 and older the opportunity to engage with peers around all sorts of common interests, mutual pursuits and shared activities – or to explore new ones. More than that, these centers are critically important and visible focal points where entire communities demonstrate their commitment to honor, nurture, serve and celebrate those older individuals whose lives and contributions have shaped the community. Additionally, they are a safe and welcome place to age, to engage and to build new communities together.
The month of May is still young, so there is plenty of time for all Americans to applaud those places where cities and suburbs, villages and neighborhoods set aside special space to “Engage with Every Age.”