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 Generation 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.