Who Is Old?

Edith Connors 77 year old body builder
Edith Connors 77-year-old body builder

Who is old?  What does old mean?  Who decides that you are old?  Who do you identify as old?

Is it age?  Do you automatically become old the day you start collecting your social security? Some people collect at 62, some at 66, and some at 70.  Or, maybe it’s the year you become eligible. Can it be the day you retire from your career job?  Or maybe it’s the day you become a grandparent.

My mother-in-law didn’t become old until she turned 90, while my mother decided she was old at 80. They self-selected when to be old. Meanwhile, my best friend who has a form of rheumatoid arthritis self-identified as old when she was only 55. So, it’s possible that old is when you need assistance with certain activities and realize that you are slowing in your performance. A 72 year old friend mentioned to me, “I can’t believe how much longer it’s taking me to walk to the office each morning. I used to be such a fast walker.“  Is she now old?

I am certain that my grandchildren identify me as old, while my peers tell me how young I look. Maybe that’s the answer. Old, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. My husband tells me I look as young as the day we met, which can hardly be true since that was over fifty years ago. Maybe we are old when our hair turns gray. Yet, I have a friend who went prematurely gray in her thirties.

Another answer might be that we are old when we start receiving senior discounts. I do have a senior Metro-Card that entitles me to use New York City’s subways and buses at half price. I have an AARP card, and I now go to movies and visit museums for senior admission rates.

Do all cultures and societies see “old” similarly?  Eastern cultures tend to value age and equate age with wisdom. Unfortunately, Western cultures put a higher value on youth. This causes many of the aging people I know to go to great lengths to appear younger than their actual age. I have an 85 year old constituent who came to see me one day carrying a large umbrella. “Is it raining?” I asked. “Oh, no”, she replied, but I refuse to walk with a cane.”

We, here in the United States and other Western industrialized counties, are experiencing a longevity boom. People here may not be perceived as old until they are in their 70s or maybe even 80s. Yet, in third world countries that are ravaged by war and hunger, people are perceived as old at a much younger age.

So, old may be determined by the place you live or the era in which you were born. My grandmother at 70 was an old woman. I am 68 and would not be described as an “old woman” by most people I know. Old can also be determined by one’s environment or the circumstances under which one lives. Those who live in poverty and those who are marginalized may not have access to good health care or healthy food. People who live in these minority communities are old sooner than those from middle and upper class majority neighborhoods.

So, it seems then that old is a socially constructed category. What old is to me may be different than what old means to you.

There is much truth in the adage, “Once you’ve seen one old person, you’ve seen one old person.” We are aging from the moment we are born; and the more we age,–the more we experience our own individual lives–the more diverse we become. Our individual lived experiences then may be the only key to determining when each of us is old.

Are you old?  If so, when did you become old?  If you are not old, what makes you see someone else as old?  Why do you think a society’s definition of old is important?

Ways Millennials Can Step Up their Game and What We All Can Learn

There is an obvious age gap between generations, and each generation face unique challenges of finding their place in society such as the Millennials are facing today. Each generations grows up in a different world full of different problems, yet we all seem to think we can keep things the same way year after year. The reality is times are changing, and we need to all make sure that we as the upcoming generation are prepared to take over for the generations currently leading now. Before that happens, here are few things that we all should be considering.

Ways the Next Generation Can Step Up: 

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Cover of Time Magazine

Stop being lazy and take responsibility. Millennials are constantly chastised for our laziness, addictions to technology, stupid behavior, and unwillingness to work. For many millennials, this is true, but it needs to change. It’s time to grow up, just in some ways. There are problems facing us that we are going to have to deal with someday, and we need to be prepared. You can still have fun and enjoy life, but make sure you are taking initiative, setting goals, challenging yourself and preparing to be leaders in the future. Life is not all about who tweeted at who and who use the Instagram filters the best.  

Find your motivation and passion. I know older people constantly bug you about what you want to do in life, and you have no idea, but that does not mean you cannot explore. It is completely fine not to know what you want to do in life, but doing nothing gets nothing. You also must like to do something. Millennials often underestimate that their interests can turn into possible job opportunities or limit their opportunities based on their major or what their parents/elders tell them they should do. Explore all options! Do not let other people tell you what to do. Your passion comes from inside you, not someone else. Go out there and get motivated!

Listen to more experienced individuals. This is valuable. You should be active trying to listening to people more experienced than you. Why? Because they have experience more than you! Every internship I had, I tried to connect with leaders in the agency and just listened to their story. Whether I believed it was useful or not, I learned how other people developed skills and got to their current position. It’s extremely helpful if you have no idea what to do, or have an idea but do not know which route to take. Learning the pros and cons of someone else’s experiences, can give you the opportunity to learn about paths before you experience them yourself. Also, talking with older people is great; you create a relationships and build your network!

Put down the technology! Now, I know what you’re thinking, I hear this all the time. People are too obsessed with technology now a days. I agree that I cannot live without my phone and my computer, but think about how you use it. Tweeting your every move, posting a picture of every moment, or texting people in the same room as you. Why do you think we have been called the “Me” generation? We are obsessed with ourselves. Put the phone down in social situations. Why don’t you try something crazy and talk to people face to face? Technology should used to advanced society and connect on a larger level, not post your ignorant thoughts or unflattering pictures. People lose jobs over Facebook, people damage relationships over Twitter, and a reputation you have worked years for can be destroyed in a matter of seconds. Learning proper social media and technology practices could go a long way.

Question authority and practices. This is something I constantly do everyday of my life. Why? Because society changes, and the way we run the world should sometimes as well. If you do not understand why things happen a certain way, question it. If you do not agree with how something operates, say something. If you have an idea to make things better, speak up. We need people to step up for what they believe is right in order to effectively collaborate as a society. We need people with many diverse opinions to give their views on how they think what should happen. You cannot complain about how things are run, if you do not contribute to bettering the conversation.

Now that I went over a few ways, millennials can step up their game, let’s discuss some reasons older generations should listen.

You do not know everything. I hate to be blunt, but it is true. This is blatantly evident when I look at the media, read about politicians or listen to people older than me. Many older individuals believe they know everything about the world due to their experiences and a young person trying to tell you something otherwise is foolish. Yes, many times we are wrong or naive about situations, but sometimes we can teach you things too. How else are you going to figure out how to use the new smart phone?

Admit your wrong. Yes, sometimes you are wrong, did you forget that? I am not trying to pick on older generations or be sassy, but really think about decisions and statements you make in your life. We are not the only ones being challenged by every days situations. No one is perfect, and it is ok. Admitting you are wrong and moving forward is a more admirable characteristic than being stubborn.

We think differently. We have great ideas and different perspectives! We will never know if we are doing the right thing, if you do not give us a chance to speak. Whether we are right or wrong, the fact that you took your time to listen means the world. I hated my supervisors when they did not listen to my ideas or thoughts, and they just nod at me to acknowledge I said something. It is frustrating when a person in an older generation does not care we have to say. We are experts in our own ways. Give us a voice for once!

You have not grown up in the same worldWhat worked for you, may not work the same as it would today. It is hard to believe that the world has changed so much in a little time period, but it has. Did you take online courses while in college? Did you have people constantly posting photos of every social interaction to the internet which can then be accessed by everyone in the world? Did you have to take out a more student loans than you will in a home mortgage? Most likely not. Yes we still share similar experiences, but do not assume that back in your day is the same situation as in my day now.

Generations before us made the problems we face today. The economy, climate change, rise in college tuition, poverty, our “laziness”, and many more issues are results of generations before us. You all have dictated the path to where we are today, and we are dealing with it. I am not blaming a particular person, but just keep this in mind before you dismiss my thoughts.

Now that’s done, here are a few things we ALL should be thinking about:

Stop thinking the world revolves around you. It doesn’t and don’t forget it. Selfishly thinking about yourself has led our society to the problems we face today. Don’t think you are any better than anyone else. Focus on how you can contribute back to society and help other people in any way possible.

Never think you are done learning. The world changes everyday, and new things happen. You can always learn something new every day of your life. Do not ever think you are done. Come on Gandhi even agrees.

Give more than you get. I learned this recently in a mentorship program I am participating in. The world is not only about making the best out of it, but giving to other people. The more you give to others, the better you are going to feel. The stronger our society will be stronger as a whole if people just stopped and cared more about other people for a change.

Courtesy of Time Magazine

Ageism In The Workplace

If we are not welcome in the workplace and we are expected to live well into our nineties and beyond, how can we ever hope to be able to sustain ourselves financially?

Can you imagine a workforce made up of 3 generations?  I am 68, my children are in their forties, and my oldest grandchild is 17. I am one of the fortunate aging boomers who is still part of the American workforce. I have no problem envisioning a workplace where my granddaughter, my son, and I will all be participating in the growth of our nation’s economy. Yet, there is one major obstacle to achieving this goal. It is the oldest, most entrenched form of discrimination in this country. Ageism!

agediscriminationintheworkplace02Nowhere is it easier to identify ageism than in the workplace. As older workers are staying longer and younger workers enter the field, more often than not they will find themselves part of a multigenerational workforce. By the middle of the next decade, the United States will be an aging society, with more Americans over age 60 than under age 15.

What this means for an evolving job market is that there will not be enough young workers to fill entry level jobs. We will then have two choices. We can import young workers from other countries, or we can prepare ahead by accommodating older workers and encouraging them to remain or re-enter the workplace. This would be a welcoming departure from the cold shoulder that older workers receive when applying for jobs today.

Our country’s leaders are always a day late and a dollar short when it comes to planning ahead. For years and years people have been writing about the “graying of the American workforce” and the “aging tsunami”. The boomers are not coming; we have arrived!

We are healthier than previous generations, and we are living longer–in many cases, as much as 20 years longer. Yet, when we leave our career jobs, whether by choice or not by choice, we step into a void. We discover that there is no role for us in society. We become invisible. The invisible man today is not a bandaged wrapped non-body. He is an invisible somebody.

Here’s the dilemma: If we are not welcome in the workplace, and we are expected to live well into our nineties and beyond, how can we ever hope to be able to sustain ourselves financially? We have the intelligence, skills and wisdom to become one of society’s greatest assets.  Yet, without the opportunity to earn our own way, we will certainly become society’s burden. Most salient is our position as repositories of historical and cultural history and our ability to solve long term problems that younger people do not have the time for.

One excuse I hear for not keeping or hiring older workers is the fear that it will be too expensive. “They will be sick too often and, therefore, be less productive.” Not true. Older workers come with an innate work ethic. We take less sick days than our younger co-workers. We also come with our own health insurance, namely, Medicare. And, older workers are often willing to work for lower salaries as a supplement to our Social Security.

Mainly, we want to be valued and be seen as contributors to a better society, not as a drain. I wonder if those who would shut older adults out of the workforce are ageists who drank the youth-obsessed Kool-Aide that the media hands out. They probably do not even recognize their own internalized ageism. Have they thought about why they do not want a workplace filled with grey haired people? Could it possibly be the threat of having a workforce who reflect the true life process of aging that they would rather deny?

Ageism does not only affect the old. It affects our entire society. It deprives one generation the opportunity to pass on knowledge to the next, while depriving the younger generation the opportunity to learn and build on that knowledge.  It deprives an older generation the opportunity to keep growing and learning new skills for which the young are our best teachers.

The stereotypes of older people that we all own do not match up with the reality of today.  They are out of date.  It’s time for an upgrade.

 

A Call for Radical Aging

ageing

In the 60’s, we raised our voices to put an end to racism, sexism, and to end a war.  Now, we are in our 60’s and we need to dig down deep to raise those voices again to put an end to ageism.

If there is any certainty in this world, it is that we are all journeying in the same direction.  We are all going to age, we are all going to, hopefully, get old, and we are all going to die.  How we age and how we prepare for the last part of our life’s journey will be shaped in great part by the society we live in.

Do we want to take that journey in an ageist society?  As women, do we want to remain invisible, spending time and money trying to erase the signs of old age and wisdom from our faces and bodies while hoping someone will see us and/or hear us?  As men, do we want to cling to myths of virility and strength, trying to deny the inevitable? Or, do we want to be respected, even revered, for lives lived and the knowledge and experience that comes with actively living through the many challenges we’ve faced?

As boomers and seniors, we have an obligation, a duty, to make our voices heard, speaking up for and molding the kind of society that will not see us as the “other”.  Many of us raised our voices in the 60’s to help create the civil rights movement, the anti-(Viet Nam) war movement, and the women’s rights movement.  Now, we are in our 60’s, and we need to dig deep down to re-energize those voices today to create a Radical Aging movement.

Longevity is here.  It’s everywhere.  It permeates the media, in professional journals, memoirs, movies and theatre, you name it.  More of us are going to live to be older than ever before in history, and our children and grandchildren even older. The effects of longevity are tenfold, affecting our health care choices, our work environments, and our relationships within families.  You may have already bumped into the challenges of longevity as caregivers of your aging parents who are in their 80’s, 90’s and 100’s. If you haven’t been there yet, it will, I can assure you, be one of the truly life-impacting eye openers that you experience on your life’s journey.  It is a front row seat view into a future that needs a movement to change it.

We are a generation that has lived through great societal changes, some good and some not-so-good.  Some of the positive changes still need refining, but there is no doubt that we made them happen.  Some I mentioned above; civil rights and women’s rights, and more recently, gay rights.  Our lives have been influenced and molded by constantly evolving technological innovations; we have new ways of communicating through social media.  We Skype or have facetime with our families who are more often separated by greater and greater distance.  We’ve moved from an insular world into a connected world.  Once only talked about, we can now see, often in real time, how what we do in our personal lives impacts other lives, not just in our own communities but on a world-wide level.  Medical research and the attending technology have contributed to the unprecedented length of life, and this is presenting challenges that are only first being addressed.  On every level and in every walk of society we are finding choices that were never available before.  We spend a lot of time trying to determine what is available to us and what we really want.

Yet, as we celebrate longevity, we stigmatize growing older.

It is time to change the accepted language of aging. All the descriptive aging stereotypes that pervade our culture and collective conscience need to become non-p.c.   We are so much more than boomers, seniors, senior citizens, aged, ancient, crones, oldsters, codgers, golden agers, geezers, old-timers, grannies…and here’s on I just came across…coffin dodgers.  Any of these sound like compliments?  We live in a culture of age and death deniers.  Putting old people “out to pasture” is no longer an acceptable metaphor.  Neither is putting them out to the golf course, shuffleboard, nor bingo.

As we age we become more and more diverse.  The longer we live, the more opportunity we have to be shaped by our life experiences which render us more dissimilar than alike.  One size does not fit all.  There is diversity in how we age biologically, physically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.  We bring “value added” to society.  Yet, in a culture of ageism and denial, to be recognized for that “value added” is an uphill struggle, and it is time for us to take up the struggle.  We proved in the past that we can effect change, and we are just going to have to dust off those banners and slogans, put on our most comfortable walking shoes and get out there again.

I leave you with this anecdote from my own experience:  I’m 60 years old and sitting in a class on public policy for the aging.  Next to me is this very sweet 20-something young woman, arduously taking notes and following the instructor’s every word.  After hearing the statistics on senior health issues and senior poverty, she turns to me and says, “I’m never going to get old.”  My response is, “I really do hope that you will.

Does Obamacare Benefit Baby Boomers?

Baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, are changing the definition of what it means to grow old. Baby boomers don’t want aging services the same way their parents did, boomers don’t want senior centers and adult day care centers, they want wellness centers and spas. They don’t want to be isolated in nursing homes, they want to live in active communities. They don’t want to stay home and watch Gunsmoke reruns in their moo moo, they want to go out dancing in high heels wearing Gucci. Boomers are spearheading the movement to age in place and our health care policies are following.

Obama_healthcare_signatureThe health home model of service delivery in section 2703 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is the most recent federal initiative promoting integrated health care and aging in place. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (H. R. 3590) is a federal policy that signed into law by President Obama in 2010, also referred to as Obamacare.

Section 2703 of the Affordable Care Act authorized states to develop a system of coordinated care through a health home. The health home facilitates access and coordination of health services through home health care, including primary health care, behavioral health care, and community-based services for Medicaid recipients with a chronic condition.

Health homes are of particular importance to older adults since the passage of the Affordable Care Act means reducing health disparities for older adults. For example, the barriers that prevent screening and assessment, and treatment among all older adults have a larger greater impact on homebound older adults due to transportation issues, handicapped accessibility, and isolation. Homebound older adults have greater physical health issues, and therefore, seeking treatment for chronic health conditions presents a significant barrier.

The passage of the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, brought increasing recognition of the need to consider the totality of an individual’s health and health care. This means fostering overall health and wellness by promoting the integration of behavioral health (mental health and substance abuse) and primary health care to increase access to affordable and effective integrated health care, treatment, and recovery support services.  Within this context, now is a perfect opportunity to engage stakeholders and partners to embrace recovery and all of its dimensions.

However, as the baby boomers redefine what it means to be “elderly” or “senior”, what will this new healthcare system look like for older adults? The home health model is an idea that promotes aging in place. It hasn’t been researched fully to know the benefits of this system. More research needs to be done, but what do you think, is the home health model truly of benefit to older Americans?

For more posts like this, follow me on Twitter @karenwhiteman

Instigating Change: The Public Perception of Social Work

change 1Over 25 years as an Australian social worker, my experience is that a good proportion of the population relate “social worker” to someone who removes children or someone who butts their nose into other people’s business. Often, it’s perceived that we practice our “stuff” in a government department, hospital to find elderly people nursing homes, or in a child welfare setting to assess family functioning.

How well do we as social workers educate our target groups about the services we provide? What do the general public perceive a “social worker” to be, and whose responsibility is it to promote our profession? Making the choice to create a career out of being a social worker has its disadvantages. After graduation it really didn’t take me long to stop calling myself a social worker. I found it to be a great conversation stopper at social gatherings. “So what do you do?” “I’m a social worker”. Responses ranged from  “oh okay, so you work with dole bludgers” to “oh you’re one of those do-gooders” to “ oh that’s interesting, so what is it that you actually do?”

Social work is a profession. Yet as a profession, it is still battling recognition in both the allied health sector and in the public arena. Historically, we were the charity workers, literally the “do-gooders”, those who gave up their time to help the disadvantaged. Our work was viewed as practical, bandaid, prescriptive, and often linked to churches who traditionally established programs to assist the poor.

Thankfully by the time I attended university in the early eighties, some semblance of a professional identity had been established, albeit still vague to the masses. “Change Agent” was one of the most apt descriptions to me at the time, and one that I use frequently today when explaining what it is that social workers actually do. Also, I was taught the term “change agent” crosses the boundaries of the three distinct areas which consist of casework, group work. and community work.

No, I did not learn how to hand out a welfare cheque to a client. Casework meant one on one counselling intervention to help an individual or family function better. No, I did not learn how to ladle the soup into bowls, and tuck people in at the local homeless shelter. I learnt how to facilitate groups, empower participants, foster mutual goals and maintain enthusiasm. And finally no, I did not learn how to partake in the local Neighbourhood Watch meetings to ensure the safety of the local community. I learnt to focus on community assets as opposed to disadvantages, inspire community participation with action towards change, and advocate on behalf of groups whose disadvantages place obstacles in the way of being heard.

When social workers are viewed as “agents of change”, it does more than just clarify our role to the public. It actually places an obligation back to the profession to ensure positive change happens for our clients. It isn’t enough to sit in the geriatric ward of the local hospital and simply look after the practicalities of a nursing home booking without checking on coping skills. Or to hand someone a food voucher without exploring ways to improve their situation in the long term.  It doesn’t cut it to sit in the office at a community centre booking external hirers and stating boldly you’re achieving something for your community. It’s not enough to sit at the head of the table at a group session and be the perceived expert whilst using psychological jargon only another professional would understand. These methods simply maintain the status quo – they do not inspire change, nor do they empower people to carry out change in order to reach their full potential.

So perhaps we need to look at our own profession and ask ourselves, what is it that we as a group are doing to maximize our profession’s full potential? Why is it that the public perception of our role is still not accurate, let alone widely known?  How do we achieve a better “branding” of the words social work and social worker?

“The general public” are our clients. They’re our target group(s).  There are a whole team of professionals including psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, social scientists and welfare workers, who aim to empower them to lead more fulfilling lives.   Yet Mr and Mrs Public don’t understand the differences in our qualifications. Our “consumers” actually don’t understand the “service” they’re purchasing, nor the good, the bad and the relevant. They just want “help” or “therapy” or “representation” and more often than not, the term “psychologist” will come to their minds. How do we change this to ensure our clients will understand their choices?

It’s time to make change to the public perception of social work. Clarify our skills in simple, layman’s terms. What is our core business? How do you describe “social work” to your family and friends?  How would you make a visit to a social worker sound appealing or helpful if you had to make a poster to promote our profession?

Start the ball rolling, leave a suggestion below as to how YOU would educate the general public to increase understanding of our skills and start “branding” our profession!

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