I have recently come to grips with the possibility that those of us who advocate on behalf of older adults need to adopt a different mindset.
I am not questioning the legitimacy of the needs of aging Americans. Indeed, they have never been greater. Far too many older Mainers are having great difficulty making ends meet, protecting themselves against ruthless scam artists, finding safe and affordable housing, having their health care needs satisfied, and more.
What I have increasingly come to question, however, is how we deliver that argument. We have largely framed poverty, abuse and the health of older Mainers as issues impacting only older adults. In the age of mounting economic problems, scarce resources and reduced government spending, such an argument runs the risk of pitting the needs of our elders against the equally pressing needs of our children, individuals with disabilities, low-income families and, for that matter, the needs of any other vulnerable group of people.
The fact is, the future integrity of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid (MaineCare) and other federal and state programs have implications for young and old alike. They transcend generations.
These are not old-age policies. Ultimately they are family and community policies and, therefore, should be defended by applying an intergenerational frame of reference. For example, Social Security has the obligation of meeting the needs of current and future beneficiaries, including the more than 30 percent who are younger than 65 years of age and are disabled or collecting survivors’ benefits. Also, Older Americans Act funding to area agencies on aging, through the National Family Caregiver Support Program and the Adult and Disability Resource centers, serves increasing numbers of grandparents raising grandchildren and individuals with disabilities regardless of their age.
It is critically important to appreciate that the future well-being of older Mainers has direct consequences for the health and welfare of citizens of all ages in the state. It is estimated that in 2011 some 75,000 older Mainers volunteered almost 7.5 million hours in community service worth more than $125 million. In 2010, Social Security payments pumped $3.6 billion into the Maine economy. Ten percent of children in the U.S., or 7.5 million, lived with a grandparent in 2010. More than 5 million of these kids were younger than 18. The efforts of Maine grandparents and other relative caregivers enable thousands of children to maintain crucial family ties at the same time that the burden on the public child welfare system is eased.
The organization Generations United seems to get it. This national membership organization composed of more than 100 national organizations and many state and local coalitions focuses solely on improving the lives of children, youth and older people through intergenerational strategies, programs and public policies. They educate policymakers and the public about the deep and meaningful ties that exist between young and old and the importance of recognizing and nurturing intergenerational cooperation.
In the end, we must ensure that the most vulnerable of our state’s residents are supported, regardless of their age or background. Families, by definition, are intergenerational. So are communities. We are at our best, and are most resilient, not when we break apart into special interest groups but when we are mutually supportive and come to the aid of each other, fighting our battles together.
Serving as director of the University of Maine Center on Aging for the past 10 years, I have seen a change. Government agencies and private foundations want to see agencies and organizations increasingly engaged in initiatives reflecting diverse community-wide collaborations and partnerships. And, in turn, more and more of our research and programming reflect a “life span” perspective in which the attitudes, values, and behaviors of people, regardless of age, are recognized to have significant impact on the well-being of entire communities.
Difficult times like these call for strategic thinking, including increased commitment to broad-scale community coalition building. Intergenerational programming strengthens communities. The health and human services have already suffered serious cuts in supports for young and old alike. It will take a community that spans the generations and speaks in one voice to stop and reverse these setbacks to our overall quality of life.
Lenard Kaye is a professor at the School of Social Work and director of the Center on Aging at the University of Maine. 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.