There can be little doubt we face worrisome times. This may be especially the case for those who believe that the government bears responsibility for responding to those who have genuine need and have earned the right to expect some assurance of well-being late into life. That expectation may appear to be at risk, altered by forces that could change the rules of the game in midstream. The forces are powerful, unmistakable and certainly unsettling — sequestration, incessantly bickering political parties, calls for less government (code, in some cases for fewer services, entitlements and benefits that have helped insure citizen safety, health and overall quality of life).
Americans began turning 65 years of age at the astounding rate of 10,000 a day since January of 2011. Americans will continue to celebrate their 65th birthdays at this unprecedented pace for the next 20 years as the baby boomer generation grows older. Are older Americans a force to be reckoned with? In terms of their absolute numbers, you certainly would think so. They are more than 40 million strong — projected to grow to an unprecedented 72 million by 2030. Talk about a group with the potential for displaying game changing clout.
Yet, the ability of older adults to assert their influence in concerted fashion remains a question mark. Elders have never been of a single mentality when they vote perhaps because elders are as diverse as any other age group – probably more so given the accumulation of varying life experiences over a lifetime. And, in some respects, the 65-plus population may have less voice than any other group. The current generation of older adults remains, by and large, extremely well behaved and well mannered. Rarely picketing, boycotting or voting unresponsive politicians out of office and responsive ones in.
Older adults will not be listened to — at least not to the degree they should — until they decide to show their true strength in more visible ways. Given their inherent difference of opinion on issues, elders are not likely to vote with anything approximating a single voice (like the growing Hispanic population displayed in the last national election.)
To be sure, we have first-rate professional elder advocates in our midst that represent organizations and associations locally and nationally who speak on behalf of older citizens. They lobby for needed legislation, services and other supports that will insure quality of life for older Mainers and their families. Older adults who are incapacitated or overwhelmed by life circumstances count on them. However, those efforts should not preclude or substitute for the responsibility we each have to take responsibility and express ourselves on issues that we feel strongly about and affect us, our families and the communities we live in.
How can older adults ensure their voices are heard? There are a number of straightforward steps to be taken. Consider writing letters to the editor of your local newspaper and to your city, state and federal government officials. Spend a day at the capitol, meeting with your local legislators and expressing your views on issues of concern. Go to town hall and city council meetings and keep abreast of issues in the community. Take advantage of available technology and express your views on the many special issue blogs and discussion forums. Volunteer to present testimony at public hearings considering new legislation and policy. If time allows, and you are so inclined, consider running for an elected position on your local town council, planning board or even state Legislature. Also, make it your business to sit on the boards and advisory councils of organizations in your community that deal with issues of personal interest.
There is a lesson to be learned from the Grey Panthers, a group of feisty individuals led by Maggie Kuhn, who were retiring from national religious and social work organizations and met for the first time in the Philadelphia area in August of 1970 to look at common problems faced by retirees – loss of income, loss of jobs and loss of contact with colleagues. They realized early on that growing older was accompanied with a new kind of freedom – the freedom to speak their minds – personally and passionately about what they believed in.
The Grey Panthers have done that ever since through local networks across the U.S. Kuhn believed that “power should not be concentrated in the hands of so few and powerlessness in the hands of so many.” The Grey Panthers were among the original troublemakers serving in Maggie’s view as “watch-dogs” that “bark” when danger is near. The Grey Panthers remain committed to honoring maturity, unifying the generations, advocating for active engagement and promoting participatory democracy.
I am convinced many Mainers in their 60s and beyond have a little Grey Panther in them itching to break free. Armed with the personal and professional experiences that have accumulated over a lifetime, their wisdom would serve our communities well at the same time that it informs our decision makers as they consider legislation and policy that is going to impact our lives and those of generations to follow.
Regardless of your point of view or political affiliation, you have the right to be heard. Take a lesson from Kuhn who believed that “old age is an excellent time for outrage.” Her goal was to “say or do one outrageous thing every day.” If you are growing old in the state of Maine, your time is now.
Lenard W. Kaye is a professor at the University of Maine School of Social Work and director of the University of Maine Center on Aging. He is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week This Op-Ed was adapted from an article appearing in the Winter 2013 issue of Maine Seniors Magazine.