How can we help recognize the strengths of older people? What can we do to make our communities more age-inclusive? Stephanie Hooper talks about how her organization AGE+ is doing just that.
BSR: Tell us about your organization, your mission and how you carry out that mission
Stephanie Hooper: AGE+ is about empowering and strengthening communities to better serve older adults, their families and their support networks.
Most people are aware that our society is aging quickly. The Boomers are starting to turn 75! Are we ready? There’s the belief that Social Security and Medicare have solved the needs of elders. At AGE+ we are deeply concerned the inequities of the past 50 years are going to play out in some ugly disparities. Aging is where you see most clearly how a lifetime of unequal access to jobs, housing and health accumulate and leave different older people with unequal resources. It’s more than a racial and ethnic issue. In Oregon, we see big differences between rural and urban places. As the state with the highest ratio of LBGTQ+ residents, we have a better perspective than most on their unique challenges facing older LBGTQ+ people.
What kind of changes would you like to see happen?
I’ve described the aging of America as a problem, a series of challenges. But older people are actually a tremendous resource. Today’s 65+ people are the wealthiest generation in our history. Older people often have the time, education, and resources to invent, help out, share. Almost all have a willingness to pitch in given a chance. So what I’d like to see is a shift in how we view and value older adults. We must do a better job of recognizing the strengths and contributions of older adults in our communities.
I think about this as a leader of a nonprofit. As long as we continue to see aging people as a burden, as frail and in decline, we will be tempted to respond with policies and programs we think will help: solutions, services, assistance. Of course, some of the most vulnerable need this kind of help—just people of all ages do. But if we recognize older generations have talent, money, experience, and ambition…well, then we think in new directions. We will start considering ways to unleash their strengths.
We got a glimpse of how dependent society is on the contributions of older people when the pandemic first hit. There was an immediate paralyzing effect on our volunteer pools because older adults make up such a large percentage and they needed to self-isolate to be safe from the virus. Grandparents who pick up much of the childcare slack were also suddenly unavailable, leaving parents in a bind to juggle distance learning and their own jobs.
Older adults deserve our attention, respect, and support. This shift can be done in big and small ways from passing Anti Age Discrimination Legislation to simply making eye contact and smiling on the street.
By 2030 we will have just as many people 65+ as we do 19 and under and this will be a permanent shift.
We’ve got to see aging not as a societal burden, but as an opportunity and integral part of our definition of families.
- Can you tell us about some of your successes?
Our best work comes when we start with what’s strong, not what’s wrong. For example, our mutual aid program, Circles of Care, connects community members with each other. Our efforts to support grandparents raising grandchildren are focused on connecting kin caregivers with each other. By the way, in Oregon, there is something like 4 times as many children cared for by grandparents as there are in the whole foster care system. See what I mean about a resource!
In the past year, we have done a lot of work-related to COVID…vaccines, education, and outreach, connecting to appointments, strengthening the public health aging lens.
- There has been discussion about changing the language of ageism to be more inclusive of all generations. What is your thinking about that idea?
Ah, that word, “age.” We are ALL aging all the time. But it’s part of our nature to resist the fact. We clearly need to discard the implication that aging is a life destination, you know, the end of the road. It seems that we have also attached a general feeling of dwindling when it comes to aging: fewer friends, less time on earth, lapsing mental capacity. Yet at 60, we still have about a third of our expected lives ahead of us. So I am in favor of language with fewer boundaries, with less focus on numerical numbers like 75 or 85. If we must have categories, can we explore terms that describe life engagement or that emphasize the role of a person in family life?
- If there is anything else you would like our readers to know?
I dislike apocalyptic language. But as a society, we are not ready for what’s coming as the demographics shift over the next ten years. Meeting this challenge is beyond the capacity of individuals, families, or government departments and programs. We need an all-hands-on-deck approach. That is why in 2022 AGE+ is embarking on a statewide effort to bring stakeholders and regular citizens to support a Comprehensive Plan on Aging. Such a plan, coming through an Executive Order from the next Governor, would jolt us into creativity, bust some silos, build new bridges and motivate us to join together for ensuring our Shared Future is what we want. After all, “a goal without a plan is just a wish” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery.
Visit the AGE+ website to learn more: https://ageplus.org/