Aging is an active verb

There can be no justice until those of us who are unaffected by crime become as indignant as those who are, the ancient Greek philosopher Solon warned. This democratic thinking on crime prevention is relevant to public-interest concerns virtually across the board.

With respect to bias toward the elderly, for example, it is fair to say there can be no justice until those of us who are unaffected by ageism become as indignant as those who are. By inference, a recent and dramatic senior moment demonstrates this universality of Solon’s message.

Consider: A 70-year-old tourist was hailed as a hero last month for defending a busload of fellow elderly tourists in Costa Rica from armed gunmen. The chief of police said the senior citizen who killed one mugger with his bare hands was well within his rights to defend himself and the group. The widely reported AP story implied a “good for them” tone in most headlines and, not too surprisingly, public reaction to the incident has been resoundingly sympathetic. This said, hopefully it is reasonable (and not exploitative) to infer such righteous indignation translates at some level to public concern for aging issues in general. Regardless, the fact is one way or another, aging issues will affect us all.

Practices and politics of aging

There now are about four million Californians age 65 and older, a number that will double by 2020. More than 60 percent of these individuals will need supportive services at some time in their life and have at least a 40 percent chance of spending time in a nursing home. In other words, many people currently unaffected by aging are in for a rude awakening.

Expansion of in-home care options is making this desirable choice a viable alternative to traditional brick and mortar facilities. Home-health aides, adult day care and community-based care are helping facilitate aging at home. State and federal funds also support affordable housing for tens of thousands of seniors. Two initiatives introduced this legislative session and supported by Aging Services of California promote practical advances in senior living and in-home care. AB 1022 (Saldana, D-San Diego) enables aging services professionals to provide support services to homeowners wanting to “age in place.” And AB 927, also Assemblywoman Saldana’s bill, would assure applications for much-needed senior housing are equitably evaluated.

Still, barriers exist to ensuring widespread, sustainable care at home. More care professionals are needed to support the noble efforts of family and volunteer caregivers, many of whom become overwhelmed with “compassion fatigue.” New technologies are needed, as well, to provide a level of care consistent with that of professional facilities.

For individuals who determine care at home is not practical or desired, senior community living has evolved into a dynamic network of traditional and hybrid options. Yet choosing between inclusive continuing care, multilevel retirement communities, assisted living and skilled nursing can be challenging. It is advantageous for prospective consumers to do research and plan while healthy–when stress, time and finances do not unduly influence decisions.

Planning to age

Despite our population’s increasing longevity and the country’s spiraling-upward health-care costs, the majority of us (69 percent, according to a recent John Hancock Life Insurance survey) have done little or no planning for long-term care. The American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging is developing a plan to restructure long-term care financing as a broad-based public-insurance program, financed by premiums and not by general tax revenues. The innovative approach would be modeled after disability insurance and would “wrap around and extend” existing Medicare benefits.

Redefining aging

Another, subtler form of ageism–denial–breeds within the baby-boomer generation, the very population who should be embracing aging. Columnist Maureen Dowd had this take on the fear of aging: “Baby boomers’ almost comic fear of aging reminds me of that silent-movie scene in which Harold Lloyd hangs precariously from the hand of a giant clock, literally pulling time from its moorings.”

To overcome ageism, all of us–including discriminators and deniers–must accept and respect aging. It won’t happen overnight, but Aging Services of California has launched a statewide, multimedia public-education campaign to adjust outdated thinking about growing old. The campaign’s message is to redefine aging as a positive, active verb rather than a label we apply only to the frail, dependent elderly. Or, consider this: We all are aging, some of us just have more experience than others. Beyond blurring the line of demarcation for aging, the goal for the campaign is to make people feel comfortable with seeking care and support when needed. Such a cultural shift in attitudes and actions — along with new public policies and practical solutions — will help ensure the aging experience of future generations is healthy, safe, independent and active.

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