This fall, Encore.org announced 21 new Encore Public Voices Fellows, a joint effort with the Op-Ed Project and Encore.org Senior Advisor Ann MacDougall.
The fellowship program is designed to fill a need arising from increasing longevity—and the inequalities embedded in longer lives. Marci Alboher, Encore.org’s vice president of strategic communications writes that “we need better and faster ideas from a more diverse set of people of all ages, especially those who are most affected by the uneven implications of these realities and most likely to see new solutions and envision a more just future.”
Stria published perspective from several of the 2018 Encore Public Voices Fellows, including Ryan Frederick on how to bring purpose into senior living communities, Odile Robotti on why corporate policies should support retirement planning, Michael Smyer on older adults as a potential resource for climate action, and more.
This year, we’re introducing the new class of fellows by asking them the share a snapshot of their vision for change when it comes to our aging society. We’ll publish their responses in three parts. Read part one now and come back in coming weeks for part three.
I believe that ageism is one of the biggest threats to improving quality of life for people in America today. Its influence is pernicious and pervasive throughout our society. It prevents adequate planning, support, and infrastructure to assure aging in place for all who desire it. Older adults themselves contribute to the problem, since—due to stigma and the desire to fiercely preserve independence at all costs—many will not “admit” they are aging or need help until it is too late. I would like to find ways to change the messaging about aging and reframe the conversation about how we make the last act of life as productive, meaningful, and fulfilling as possible.
Pervasive negative attitudes in our society about aging and becoming an older person are bad for both young and old. They negatively impact the health and well-being of older people, make later life a stage of life many wrongly fear, and rob our society—and especially young people—of the millions upon millions who have lived for decades and have acquired invaluable skills, knowledge, talents and experience. Through the Institute for Empowered Aging at United Neighborhood Houses of New York, and by partnering with settlement houses and community centers far and wide, I work to raise the voices of older people as the powerful community asset we are, harvesting and empowering our skills, talents and passions for the greater good. Through voice and action, I work to reposition later life as a phase of life to which we all can aspire—where we remain fully a part of our communities, live lives of meaning and purpose, and are valued by the broader society.
Our society does not inherently value the talent, abilities, insights and contributions of people who are aging into their 70s, 80s and even 90s—a social injustice that should offend sensible citizens. Presumptively, negative stereotypes abound and the costs of our care, supports and services suggest to the ill-informed that we’ve outlived our utility. I vehemently disagree with these beliefs and perceptions. I feel a deep responsibility to disprove most of these as myths and, for the others, to change our culture toward acceptance and inclusion through education and our presence, since aging—and acquiring disabilities—is a natural consequence of life. To the extent my words can influence public opinion and encourage more aging members of society never to apologize for living a great, long life, I will speak up and out.
Our society would benefit from rejecting generational silos and embracing a culture of age integration and interdependence. Each generation is unique in its experiences and perspectives, but each would benefit greatly and, indeed, thrive by viewing itself as part of a collective whole, spokes within our societal wheel.
As a child growing up in a Gullah community in South Carolina, intergenerational connections were central to our way of life. While it wasn’t an age utopia, every age group was valued and seen as critical to the overall well-being of our community. Blood lines did not prescribe, or limit, relations. Often, children had closer relationships with their grandparents than with their parents. Most adults exhibited a vested interest in all children.
Gullah communities have changed since I was a child. Many are currently threatened by encroaching development, heirs property laws, hurricanes, flooding, and more. I will use my voice to tell our stories and celebrate our values. I will speak out for any and all ways to connect the generations. I hope to push us all closer to a new form of age interdependence, one that works for our times and all our diverse communities.
Our attitude toward youth-adult partnerships needs a lot of work. Many of today’s youth-led movements reject adults because there’s no clear way for them to work together. Many adults, well-intentioned but lacking a mechanism, unsurprisingly react with disdain, groaning about how young people don’t understand and should stop complaining and do things as they’ve always been done. We need an intentional way for youth and adults to tackle today’s biggest issues together, and my voice will help design solutions that can lead to large-scale change.
We must counteract the common view of older people as burdens on society. In my work on AARP’s Longevity Economy project, I promote information that depicts the reality of the 50+ population — older people are givers to, not takers from, society. The economic contribution of those over 50 is substantial and will only increase. And while older people’s contributions are usually framed in terms of the market economy (because these are easier to quantify), their activities extend to other dimensions of social life. We know, for example, that older people spend not only money but time on volunteering and caring for grandchildren, spouses, and friends. In the absence of such contributions, societal expenditures on health and long-term care services would be unsustainably higher. Recognizing that older people remain vital contributors is the first step toward maximizing their impact on the market economy and supporting their ability to help care for themselves and their loved ones.
We need to improve opportunities for intergenerational connection and understanding. We need to make space for one another across generations. Issues like climate change, education, employment, and healthcare affect us all. Instead of seeing one another as competition, we must focus on our commonalities so we can all flourish.
As a philosopher who works in social and political philosophy and bioethics, I think a lot about health justice—access to care, being treated fairly when one seeks care, and the ways that health affects and determines quality of life. Health justice matters, not only to ourselves as individuals, but also to our loved ones, our communities, and our place in the world. To that extent, my commitment to health justice necessarily requires a commitment to working across generations.
I also see my task as showing how we’re all in this together, even when a commitment to making the world better requires emphasizing the needs of some, particularly those who are more vulnerable than others. This is the work I do, and this is my contribution to changing society for the better.