Each May since 1963 we’ve celebrated National Older Americans Month. When President Kennedy designated May as the month to honor the contributions of our senior population, there were just 17 million Americans ages 65 and over. According to the U.S. government, our senior citizens now number more than 44 million strong — and “strong” isn’t a term we use lightly!
Senior citizens remain among the most reliable voters in the country, for both national and state/local elections. About 9 million seniors are military veterans. Nearly 4.5 million seniors are still working regular jobs. A tremendous number of grandparents — over 50% of grandparents nationwide — assist with child care on a routine basis. And untold numbers of seniors are providing financial help to their families in this uncertain economy. In short, our elder citizens are keeping our families, our finances and our country running smoothly and safely.
The damaging misconceptions
Despite the continuing vitality and wisdom of so many seniors, we often view an aging population as weak, fragile and socially and economically dependent. Too often we view our elderly as liabilities rather than assets. These misconceptions can be damaging — certainly to the confidence and pride of our beloved seniors, but also to the quality of life they enjoy.
When we focus (even with the best of intentions) on what our elders are unable to do, rather than their capabilities, we deny them the right to full and productive lives. By excluding seniors from decision-making we take away their power. By expecting them to conform to social norms and stereotypes we restrict their engagement and activities.
Elderly does not mean helpless
As we age, we all experience limitations — perhaps intellectual, perhaps physical. Nonetheless, seniors may be far more capable than we believe. Consider the following:
- At age 93, actress Betty White remains a featured cast member on the popular TV series “Hot in Cleveland.”
- Benjamin Franklin helped draft the Declaration of Independence at age 70. He was 81 when he signed the U.S. Constitution.
- Mary Baker Eddy founded the Christian Science Monitor when she was 87 years old.
- At the age of 61 Oliver Wendell Holmes became a United States Supreme Court Justice, and spent the next 30 years on the bench.
- John Glenn flew on the Discovery space shuttle at age 77.
Certainly these are extraordinary examples. But most seniors are still capable of contributing to their families and their communities in all kinds of ways, both large and small. Our elders may provide counseling or mentoring to younger family members or school children. They may act as guardians of family legends and legacies, passing them on to the next generation. They may get involved in local politics, or form investment groups where they provide financial wisdom to others.
Get active, get involved
During the month of May, honor your beloved elders by helping them to stay active and involved with family and community life. Ask them about special interests like book groups, card clubs or church activities. Help them to hook up with the activities they prefer, and consider providing transportation if it’s needed.
If your elder is interested in public service, put them in touch with the United States Senior Corps. Volunteering with Senior Corps presents a wide range of opportunities, from youth mentoring to teaching English to U.S. newcomers to providing companionship to other, more needy seniors.
Most importantly, remember that although your senior family members may need your help, that doesn’t mean they’re helpless. Allowing them the opportunity to enjoy the intangible rewards of helping others will be a true blessing to everyone involved.