My time as an Encore Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project has opened my eyes to the reality that aging is the one challenge we all will experience regardless of our socio-economic background.
The number of older Americans is set to double in the next twenty years yet support for aging programs has remained stuck at a tiny 1.6% of charitable giving for decades. As John Feathers, CEO of Grantmakers in Aging wrote in 2014, “the world is no more ready to cope with aging-associated challenges than it is to seize the unique opportunities an aging society presents.” The small amount of age-related funding primarily targets disease and the most vulnerable. Yet aging well signifies aging throughout the life course, not just the frail, elderly stage.
This means funding creative approaches for people of all ages to stay and thrive in their communities – indeed aging in our own community (even if our homes are no longer suitable) is proven to improve lives, strengthen families, and save money. At a national level, the World Health Organization’s “Age Friendly Cities Initiative,” AARP’s “Livable Communities Project,” and Dan Buettner’s “Blue Zones Projects” seek to improve local environments, public policy, and social networks. You and I need to ensure such initiatives are implemented in our neighborhoods. It also means harnessing the experience, knowledge and skills of older people. Older adults are eager for second careers in the non-profit sector; currently one in four Americans over age 55 volunteers. You and I need to convince organizations to engage them to solve social problems so our lives beyond 50 will be a time of social contribution and impact, not isolation and marginalization. And it means fighting against ageism. As anti-ageism activist Ashton Applewhite points out, discriminating against older adults is actually discriminating against our future selves.
So how do we apply an aging lens and invest in our futures when faced with donation requests? We can start in our own back yard. Mine happens to be the nation’s smallest state, Rhode Island. Its tiny size and population make it an ideal laboratory to pilot innovative approaches which then can be scaled or replicated elsewhere. Already, Rhode Island has the highest proportion of adults age 85+ in the country and 23 percent of its population is over 60. Over the next 20 years, that figure will rise by 75 percent (and 100 percent for people age 74-84). Unfortunately, Rhode Island’s older adults rank lowest in health scores and have the highest rate of Medicaid long term services and support in New England. The majority of Rhode Islanders have two or more chronic diseases (80% of all older American adults have at least one) and 50 percent of those over age 85 have some sort of physical limitation.
However, Rhode Island does have two important assets to tackle aging issues: eleven universities generating innovative solutions in the health sciences and a vibrant community of social entrepreneurs running sustainable “do good-do well” businesses that use market forces to solve social problems. The Social Enterprise Greenhouse, which supports these enterprises with skills training, networking and capital access, recently announced an aging and longevity program to foster innovation and entrepreneurship in promoting healthy aging. Some of its members have attracted national attention, such as Doctor’s Choice, a resource for making Medicare Plan coverage decisions, Watch Rx, an elderly medication reminder watch, and Portela Soni Medical, a new standard of urinary catheter. Some are non-profit, such as Hands in Harmony, which provides music therapy grounded in neuroscience, some are for-profit, such as Love Philo, which makes logic puzzles and interactive games for those with dementia and their families. And some have a purely local focus, such as Savory Faire which provides home cooked, home delivered meals for seniors, or RIElderInfo.com, the state’s first comprehensive resource website for seniors, caregivers and professionals. But all started needing seed funding.
So whether you support a local charity preventing elder abuse (currently at a six-year high), or fund start-up social entrepreneur whose product you may one day use, or convince your favorite non-profit to recruit more retiree volunteers, you will be investing in your future quality of life.