Kids are the future? So are older adults!

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[Image description: A sepia-toned drawing of an older gentleman playing a violin. He is wearing a hat, a scarf, and a suit jacket with two buttons buttoned. He is smiling and appears joyful. The background includes musical notes. Image obtained from Pixabay.com]

In college—Washington University in St. Louis. Yeah, go Bears!…If that’s still relevant!—I volunteered with the Campus Y and led a program called SAGE (Service Across GEnerations). We students would wake up early on Saturdays, hop on the school shuttle, and visit seniors at a nursing home. We played checkers and cards and talked to the seniors. There was Joyce, who enjoyed drawing penguins and who always called me Lou. And Mrs. Mosbey, a 90-year-old blind woman who listened to the radio and kept up with current affairs, who constantly ribbed me for being vegan. “You need to eat some meat,” she would say, “it’ll put some hair on your chest.”

As delightful as the visits were, it was extremely difficult to get other students to participate. Whereas the program where you read books to small children had over a hundred volunteers each day, SAGE always had just four to six of us. This was not from lack of trying. We had amazing posters! I remember how frustrating and demoralizing it was trying to convince other students to come along, to meet these incredible seniors. A one-hour visit would do so much to brighten their day. It was always a tough sell. No one wanted to spend time with seniors; it was much easier to ignore them and read to children.

Now that I have been out in the “real world,” I see how pervasive this problem is. The marginalization of older adults happens in society in general, and unfortunately it happens within our sector. My friends who work with older adults tell me of the frustration of trying to find funding for their senior centers or senior programs. One local ED colleague called me, distraught over the fact that she had to justify a senior hot-meal program, as if low-income seniors’ being fed a decent lunch is not a good-enough outcome. Yet another ED tells me of a funder that provides support for food and nutrition programs for children and families…but not for older adults.

According to this article, only about 2% of philanthropic dollars go to senior programs, and this number has remained the same over the past two decades. And globally, vastly more funds are spent on healthcare for kids under 5 than for adults over 65. This is a big problem, especially if we layer on intersectional inequity. Black older adults, for example, are twice more food insecure than white seniors. Older women, meanwhile, face more challenges in the workforce than older men. Older women of color face some of the highest rates of poverty, on average twice that of older white women, and more than three times that of older white men. Older adults with disabilities also face multiple challenges.

The tossing away of our old people happens a lot in society. We shouldn’t let it happen in our sector. As nonprofits, we bring balance to the world, and the world has been screwing over our older adults, especially those who are women and people of color. We have an obligation to support older adults, no matter our age or what population we are working with.

First of all, we all need to dispel some ridiculous myths that we each have about aging and learn some facts. According to my colleague Claire Petersky, the ED of Wallingford Community Senior Center, Only 4% of us end up in nursing homes, and that number is dropping. Dementia? The vast majority of us, 90%, have our marbles when we die, and the numbers who die with dementia is also dropping. Depression? Turns out, we are happiest at the beginnings and ends of our lives. It’s called the U Curve of Happiness.” So it’s not all doom and gloom and hopelessness. Heck, if you’ve been watching Golden Girls and Grace and Frankie like I have, growing older, while it comes with challenges, seems to be pretty hilarious. I’m looking forward to being a sassy septogenarian.

Second, we all need to acknowledge that most of us will get old or older, if we live long enough. I remember being invited to an Aging Your Way event put on by Sound Generations here in Seattle a few years ago, and I thought, What the hell does this have to do with me? The senior who invited me said, “You do know you are going to be old one day, right?” I think a reason why it can be hard to get people to think about older adults is because old people remind us of our own mortality and of the inevitability of death. Well, maybe our work and the world would be better if we all think about aging and death more often.

Third, we have to get out of this ROI mindset. Says my colleague Claire, a huge challenge is the mindset that We invest in causes, and then we get a return on our investment. So, we invest in youth, and we get a return on our investment, in terms of someone who will live a more productive life, contributing to our capitalist economy. But what’s my return on my investment if I give to a cause related to old people? Old people just get sick and die. Their productive lives are over.” This is a terrible philosophy that leads to a crappy society, and unfortunately it is ingrained in most of us. Older people contribute plenty to every aspect of life. But more importantly, we are more effective at building the ideal community if we believe in the intrinsic value of individuals, not just what they will contribute to society.

Funders, you have to invest more resources in programs for older adults: I know that kids are cuter, with their big eyes and tiny shoes and endless potential, etc. We say things like “kids are the future” all the time. This is true. But old people are also the future. In fact, the number of older adults is growing significantly year by year and will reach over 71 million in the US by 2030. We have to invest more in programs and services for our seniors, because the demands will increase. We especially need funders’ support for programs focused on seniors who are women and people of color. This is not to say that we should pay less attention to or provide fewer resources for programs for kids or teenagers or young parents or others in society. It shouldn’t be zero-sum. But we as a sector need to pay more attention to older adults, even as we support early learning and other programs.

Nonprofit leaders, we need to do a better job hiring older workers. It would be great if all of our missions, not just aging-related ones, incorporate more conversations about aging and partnerships with senior programs. While we’re working on that, we need to talk about hiring. This deserves its own blog post, but older adults, especially older women, face so much discrimination in finding and retaining work. This is not good, and we are missing out on some important skills and experience while perpetuating inequity. Here is an article listing out he numerous benefits of hiring older talent. We need to do a better job understanding the implicit and explicit ageism in our hiring and workplace practices.

Let’s do better in general in supporting the older adults in our community. At the very least because we are all going to grow older, so we each have selfish reasons to do create a community where we can comfortably grow old in. But more importantly because this is the fundamental duty of our sector, to ensure that every individual is intrinsically valued and able to achieve happiness across the entirety of their life. As Frankie from Grace and Frankie says, “I’m hopped up on ginkgo biloba and ready to rumble.” We should all get hopped up to support programs and services for older adults.

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  • Irene Rabinowitz

    Hey, Vu, and some of us continue to work in the sector. I work for an LGBT organization in Jerusalem, Israel and am twice the age of my CEO and three times as old as our board chair. And I am treated no differently than anyone else on the staff. We are in the process of creating a full program for elders within the LGBT community in Israel to address the problems you mentioned. Thanks for bringing attention to this. By the way, SAGE is also the name of a US nation wide organization serving LGBT seniors in the US.

  • Ronnie Weston

    Go Bears!
    Great post.

  • Laura Goodwin

    Vu – you missed the most fundamental misperception that we have to overcome: “social security is there, so seniors should be all set… and if they are not it’s their own fault for using the social safety net incorrectly.” The need to create an accurate and coherent narrative that explains how philanthropy and government programs work best in partnership with each other has never been more critical.

    • Carolyn Owens

      I agree Laura, I’ve heard this from funders, government representatives, and others. One of my food bank clients had to end their senior program because after government support ended we couldn’t find anyone else to fund it.

  • Momfox

    Another factor to consider is the value of older adults and children spending time together, as well as elders being mentors to young adults, struggling parents and in many other ways.

    When I was Y-USA director of volunteer service and learning, I helped connect Ys to AARP and its growing efforts to engage its members in the greater good.

    In early retirement from non-profit work, I am volunteering presently in work that connects Caribbean island children to adults who live on boats in order to enhance the students’ reading skills and introduce “yachties” (as we are called in Grenada) to local culture. I am also volunteering online as a scorer for the new ChurchClarity.org website.

  • Becky Fox Jascoviak

    Perhaps the new Disney/Pixar film Coco will have a cultural impact on respecting, remembering, and serving our elders. It’s a great film!
    And I couldn’t agree more with your post especially as grant funds go. Individual donors can be connected more easily to senior programs when it directly connects to their own experience with their parents or other seniors in their lives.

  • Amy Martyn

    Great article. I appreciated the stats! Having just helped my mom pass after three years with dementia, I’ve been feeling like all the elders I know are living in nursing homes/assisted living! I do wonder if the numbers on both fronts will rise as baby boomers continue to age. And even if we’re able to stay home, most of us will need help: hot meals, housecleaning, personal care. And caregivers (babies to elders) are most often women, women of color, many times women without legal citizenship, and all without enough pay or support. There are great groups out there working on that, like the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

  • Katharine Kravetz

    I would highly recommend the advocacy organization Generations United for creative ways to bring young and old together.

  • Amy McDougal Albrecht

    Hallelujah and pass the gravy – thank you, Vu, for once again speaking for those who are left on the sidelines. We’re fortunate that our philanthropic community deeply loves and supports our rock star senior center and its services. As we work toward achieving Dementia Friendly Wyoming, there is so much more to do and your voice makes a difference. Sending love and gratitude from Sheridan, WY!

  • Sheri Simonsen

    This! Thank you for speaking this truth, Vu. I work at the Health Promotion Research Center at the UW – we have conducted research on healthy aging for 30 years. This is a huge, important topic that affects everyone at some point in their lives and in their loved ones’ lives. Keep it up front and in the public awareness!

  • Sandy Heather

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/082abec4ba085386254574b7ab1d34367994d29b9e03d09d07a6b3d28ba44fb8.jpg

    I work for an organization called the Intercultural Senior Center. Our global guests from 25 different countries around the globe enjoy taking classes, making art, and making friends every day. Many have experienced unspeakable suffering, but their capacity for joy and living in the moment has changed my life.

    Namaste, Vu.

  • Larry Kaplan

    Amen. Thank you for raising this issue. Many people are also dealing with the elderly personally by taking care of, or assisting, their parents with minimal support, and get to see society’s challenges up front.

    A cohort of independent older people is a relatively new phenomenon — people are living longer and the concept of a multi-generational household is becoming less common. As with high tech, our social, legal and economic systems have not quite yet caught up with these changes. And here is a specific example of an unprecedented situation — LGBT elderly, for a number of reasons:

    First, if LGBT seniors must go into institutional settings, they are often finding themselves in hostile at worst, indifferent at best, environments. There are too many stories of people having to return to the closet in order to fit in. Progressive states like CA have adopted laws requiring nursing homes to train and educate their personnel in this area.

    Second, most Boomer generation LGBT people, who have lived most of their lives before same-sex relationships were sanctioned and supported by society, are (and always have been) empty nesters, with no children or grandchildren to help them out as they age, and many with no spouse, as well. This social isolation is bad for one’s health and pocketbook.

    In the workplace, age discrimination is rampant in our society, worse in some places (like So CA) than others, but in general much worse than in most other societies. Ageism is an insidious “ism” that has not yet received the kind of scrutiny and criticism that it should — you raise a good point in that it exists in the nonprofit sector as well as everywhere else.

    And I will go a step further to say that it knows no political or philosophical boundary — I’ve seen it practiced by people who would be the first to condemn
    racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of prejudice; it’s time for
    all of us to face up to it.

    • Yes – because of discrimination, LGBTQ seniors are less likely to be partnered, less likely to have children, and more likely to be estranged from their religious communities – and as you point out, these are our main sources of unpaid/informal caregiving. I have heard gay and lesbian older adults say that they plan to rely on their peers for caregiving, which works up to a point. But once you’re all age 85 and older – you’re all in need of caregiving, maybe, and can’t help each other out as effectively. We desperately need more support for caregiving that is not based out of family or church – LGBTQ seniors especially. Nonprofits that provide volunteer caregiving can step into this gap, providing screening, training, and support to the volunteer, and assuring the older adult of the quality of the help being offered.

      One time I heard speeches from the senate floor by Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders both saying that we need more volunteer caregiving in this country, so I’d say that there’s broad ideological support for this concept in our country, even if Paul and Sanders have different ideas of how it should be paid for.

      So I ask – why are the members of the National Volunteer Caregiving Network (http://www.nvcnetwork.org/index.php/about) not flourishing? Why aren’t they being supported in their communities? How can leadership in the LGBTQ community partner with these organizations to make sure that all older adults are receiving the care that they need?

  • Rhiannon Orizaga

    It’s all connected, too… I don’t know a single person who grew up poor and didn’t benefit from having an engaged grandparent or two who filled the gap. Grandparents babysit, buy school clothes, pay for field trips, and so much more. Ignoring seniors hurts children.

    • David Tucker

      Very true – the ‘ROI’ for seniors is their ability to contribute to family and community life – as family caregivers and community volunteers. Vu again hits the mark in raising this issue.

  • Dedangelo

    Thank you, thank you, thank you.