Ellen Moyer: over 70 and feeling left out

Culturally, America has not been kind to its aging population.

Widowed women, caregivers and spouses struggle to make ends meet. The experience and skills gained over decades of participation in society are stripped of any meaningful usefulness to those around us. Vim and vigor rule society. If you are a senior with vigor and vigour‚ however, you don’t count. Exit to the pasture. Leave. Like lions, tigers and bears, old people are scary.

The dynamics of our world tell us that the elderly population is increasing. Research also shows an increase in depression and mental health issues among forgotten seniors whose social communication and involvement have fallen off the cliff. Elders get frustrated doing simple tasks that once seemed so easy. And public works are designed to ignore the concerns or needs of an increasingly elderly population. In some societies, elders were once made to wander and die. It’s not the American norm, but circumstances of perceived worthlessness leave many seniors feeling homeless even with a roof over their heads. A myriad of small discounts on goods and items is more of an insult than substantial help for financially challenged seniors.

So what should we do with our elders as the elderly population grows? Here are some ideas. You probably have more.

1. Older people need a handyman. The government offers subsidized programs for children and students. How about a four-hour-a-week craft program for seniors? Someone to help take out the trash or clean the shelves. A person who can drive old people to appointments, plant flowers, and do a myriad of other things that once seemed so easy. Older people of means can pay for additional services, but for most, private support is unaffordable. Four hours a week would certainly be a boost to the quality of life for seniors.

2. Elderly women who stayed at home to care for children and organize events for a husband in the course of employment do not receive any social security benefits for this service. But small businesses that offer the same services are recognized by Social Security. Recognizing housewife service in Social Security could ease some of the pain of the elderly’s economic hardship.

3. At the government level, include two elders as emissaries in public councils and commissions related to their past experience and interests. This would engage those willing to share their views, experiences, and institutional knowledge in policy decision-making and eliminate unnecessary reworking or redesigning of things already done.

4. Establish a senior advisory council (the county has a youth advisory council) to share ideas, concerns and needs with elected leaders. This council could review government public works and planning and zoning designs to ensure unrecognized seniors’ concerns are addressed. Something as simple as benches along walking paths or on main streets recognizes the need of older people to physically stop more often than younger people.

5. Establish mentorship programs that connect youth with a senior mentor.

6. And on a larger organizational scale, perhaps of interest to groups like AARP, how about this: Small town newspapers don’t exist anymore. Local news is lost. So why not engage seniors to cover neighborhood and community stories for publication in a low-cost newspaper supported by local businesses? A nearby college could help organize and train the new “storytellers” and a means of communication once taken for granted would be reclaimed in a small way. In small towns where local programs once important to community life have disappeared, there are seniors sitting at home watching TV who could be hired to fill in the gaps and rekindle the spark. )

7. Hold regular neighborhood “let’s talk” meetings in small groups (like a book club) for people aged 70 and over to identify concerns to share with business and political leaders.

In other words, recognize the value of our older population as a public service resource and engage older members of our society in a meaningful way. The National Park Service accepts volunteers regardless of age. If you’re over 100, you can still do NPS a favor.

Talk to any retiree, senior, and you’ll hear comments about feeling rejected, an interested voice that goes unheard and importunates when it could make a difference. The dynamics of society are changing. It’s time to stop grazing a large percentage of our population. No more homeless.

Moyer is a former mayor of Annapolis.

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