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The Face of Aging

by Anja Workman

November 6,2007

The face of aging in our society might best be described as ignored or forgotten. It seems far too easy for many of us to turn away and not acknowledge the immediate or pending needs of our older adults and their caregivers. Often, basic needs - physical, cognitive, emotional or financial - must reach a crisis or boiling point before receiving long, overdue attention.

As the eldest daughter in my family and a ‘sandwich generation caregiver’ (caring for both children and parents), I’ve learned firsthand about the responsibilities, challenges and rewards of that precious role. The past couple of years have been an intensely difficult journey for me, but I realize that issues I’ve struggled to overcome are no different from those that many families deal with on a daily basis. Together, we’ve faced my mother’s cancer, dealt with my father’s hip and knee replacement, and agonized how best to cope as my grandfather’s dementia has progressed to a point where he no longer recognizes his only daughter. During these same years, I have experienced the joys of motherhood and the life lessons of raising two sons. Surgeries – planned and unplanned – as well as annual immunizations, infinite paperwork and medical forms, and middle-of-the-night illnesses have all played a part in my daily life. The patience I’ve learned as a mother has helped me cope with my parents’ problems, but it has also given me a new perspective on how to care for others.

For the past sixteen years I’ve worked in the senior industry and I’ve witnessed the increasing need for greater older adult services. It is our inherent responsibility and opportunity to address the compelling issues facing our older adults and their caregivers. It is mine and future generations who will either proactively address such major issues as healthcare and housing for seniors, or will find ourselves in the reactive mode of trying to change values and desperately advocate for seniors’ needs.

There are unlimited ways to get involved and ultimately help create a better community for older adults. Share your time and talent at your local Senior Center, read to those who no longer can, deliver Friendship Trays meals to homebound seniors, assist in coordinating teens and centurians at inter-generational nursing home programs. Consider becoming involved with your local Council on Aging, AARP Chapter or Area Agency on Aging volunteer groups. These opportunities make a profound difference in the lives of seniors.

One of the newer buzz phrases in town is the talk of a more ‘Senior Friendly Mecklenburg.’ At a recent forum for candidates running for office, the question was posed, “What does a ‘Senior Friendly Mecklenburg’ mean to you?” Some felt it was about physical accessibility with regards to sidewalks, transportation and pedestrian-friendly streets. A few candidates believe a new culture of awareness and older adult advocacy needs to be achieved with greater collaboration between private and public service providers. Others mentioned that continuing the focus on major relevant areas - such as transportation, healthcare, safety and housing – as initiated by the 2003 Status of Seniors for Mecklenburg report would be the best scenario for Charlotte. It was refreshing to see the topic addressed and our politicians discussing a different future for seniors.

So while broader scientific aging research is striving to increase longevity as well as provide an overall better quality of life, it is still our “human” nature that inevitably determines our own personal level of commitment to older adults. Our goal should not be to help ourselves or others live forever, but instead, we should strive to add quality years with fully functioning physical and mental capacities. In order to do this, seniors will need the help and support of everyone - individuals, families, communities, organizations and all levels of government.

For me, the face of aging shows great beauty, strength and wisdom. It is a joy to connect to such an invaluable part of our population. There is no replacement for this shared collective experience that involves dignity, humility, honor, respect and love. With a little luck, what I practice with my own parents and my community will become my children’s legacy. It is my hope that one day they will carry on the rewarding tradition of caring for others.

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