Several weeks ago, just shy of her 98th birthday, my beloved grandmother passed away. While I naturally feel sadness and grief, I also feel a profound sense of gratitude, faith, and resolution. My grandmother — Nana, as we called her — lived a rich and productive life. She made a lasting imprint on all who knew her, and for the better part of her existence she was healthy and actively engaged in community life. Her final five years were characterized by the losses and ailments people typically face as they age, yet she still found ways to connect with others and make valuable contributions to her community.
My Nana’s trajectory is not unlike those of many older adults today. With advances in science, medicine, and technology, people are living decades longer than they used to. Older adults are no longer retiring in droves to senior communities at age 55. Rather, they are continuing to live full lives as active members of society, often well into their 80s and 90s. This is particularly relevant to the Jewish community, which boasts a higher percentage of older adults than the general population — 24 percent versus 18 percent.
Yet why, despite the teachings of esteemed rabbi and philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel, who proclaimed, “A test of a people is how it behaves toward the old,” does our culture often cast aside people as they age? Why do we associate aging with fear, anxiety, and loss when it also comes with experience, wisdom and growth? We invest so much in cultivating youth and the next generation of leadership, why not take some of what we’ve learned and start adapting this approach to older adults?
A shift in our culture’s collective mindset is essential. And, with the older-adult population expected to balloon at an unprecedented rate over the next several decades, now’s the time to start. By 2030, the U.S. population of older adults will double. What’s more, by the end of 2014 all baby boomers, a generation numbering 77 million, will be over the age of 50. And UJA-Federation’s “Jewish Community Study of New York: 2011” revealed that those 55 and over comprise 37 percent of the total New York Jewish population.
Reframing traditional perceptions of aging is no easy task; it’s an enormous undertaking and requires collective risk-taking and collective action.
There are interesting endeavors in the public and private sectors, in the Jewish world and beyond, that are working toward this goal. The World Health Organization’s Global Network of Age-Friendly Cities and Communities guides governments in making urban spaces better places for healthy, active aging. LeadingAge is one of many nonprofits involved in education, advocacy, and research to improve aging services. It convenes thousands of organizations to share best practices. Even businesses like Pfizer are joining the fray with their site GetOld.com, an online community that aims to inspire people to “rethink what it means to Get Old in order to break societal limitations and discover a better quality of life at every age.”
UJA-Federation is also taking action. In fall 2013, we launched a bold initiative — Engage Jewish Service Corps. Engage strives to change outdated perceptions of aging and redefine elders’ roles in the community — from a negative perception of people who need services to a positive one of people who provide services. Engage mobilizes older adults to volunteer and solve problems within the New York Jewish community. These older adults use their expertise, passion and leadership to address issues they care about — poverty, hunger, joblessness, education, isolated elderly and children with special needs.
We know that as people age, they start to reflect on their lives and their legacies. Not only does Engage give older adults a chance to apply their wealth of knowledge and skills, but it also enables them to connect with new friends and communities, which mitigates the isolation many experience in their later years. In only the first eight months of Engage, nearly 500 people have volunteered and almost 4,000 lives have been touched. Our hope is that the intergenerational connections volunteers establish will chip away at conventional attitudes toward aging.
No one program and no one person is going to change the way society views older people. There needs to be a groundswell of advocates who take action and make our world a better place in which to grow old. I get calls from other Jewish federations and organizations asking what we’re doing for baby boomers. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I do convey my belief that we need to experiment and take risks. We need to generate new ways to ensure that as people age they remain connected to their communities and live lives full of meaning and purpose. Just like my Nana. Just like all of us would want for our loved ones. And ourselves.
Lauren Epstein is a planning manager in UJA-Federation of New York’s Caring Commission.