Empowering Senior Citizens

Discussing and projecting statistics of the aging population in Alberta is not to alarm, it is something to pay attention to and to celebrate. The grey wave is a demographic group of younger seniors to much older seniors due in part to the baby boomers coming of age and longer life expectancy. A few years ago, while on a road trip, my then 16 year old daughter commented, “If a person lives a good long life, a third of it will be as a senior”.  This is a diverse group of people with unique needs and wants.  How then do we, as a society, empower seniors?

First there is the problem with language.  There are rumblings that the term senior is no longer appropriate. “Older adults” is the preferred term.  The rationale is “senior” conjures up negative connotations.  I would suggest the term older adult will fare no better.  Both are neutral terms and only cultural shifts in what we value will put a positive slant on either term.  I propose we stay strong in raising the profile of senior citizens through awareness and education. And that we stay clear about the specific population group we are referring to.  

When we speak about empowerment of Senior citizens, we address these two questions:

1.    What are the barriers to living your life the way you want to?

2.    How is your quality of life improving with age?

On a work day, a caller asks, “Are you the government”?  “Thank you for your call.  No we are not the government.  The Alberta Council on Aging is a charitable organization that for forty five years has worked to improve the quality of life of seniors.”  How may I empower you today? I think as I prepare to listen.  The caller’s story begins to unfold:  medical issues- physical and mental, housing challenges and what sounds to me like social isolation.  Here we are at the onset, the presentation of key areas of concern:  health, housing, and belonging.  The communication strategy is to align myself with the caller.  We then move in to focusing the complaint and mining for a solution.  Finding a solution is not always an immediate outcome, however, through empowerment, the caller will begin to feel a growing confidence that it is because she is a senior citizen and not in spite of that fact, there will be a movement toward a solution. We will discuss legislation as well as feelings.

Another caller starts with complaint that no level of government is responding satisfactorily to an issue that is by his perception ruining his life.  He makes his own statements of ageism when he comments his younger neighbors don’t care about the situation- they are gone during the day and just watch TV or play loud music at night.  By the time the conversation is over, the caller has some ideas about how to approach the situation and this includes getting to know his younger neighbors to engage them in their community and the issue at hand.  Through identification and empathy the caller says goodbye and before doing so, says,” Yes, I can do this because I am after all, a seniors citizen!”  Sometimes, the social barrier is the senior citizen’s impression of how little their impact on community can be.  At what point does a senior’s sense of self advocacy begin to diminish?  

The age-friendly communities initiatives ranging from The World Health Organization to civic government, speak to making communities age-friendly.  The vision centers on the growing number of senior citizens worldwide.  Senior citizens share many of the same values- they want a good level of health, affordable and appropriate housing, transportation, information, and community engagement.  It is said that if you program according to the frailest senior you will include everyone.  The age friendly initiative centers on the needs of senior citizens.  

Indifference to the needs of seniors reflects a lack of regard and respect for seniors.  This may be one of the contributing factors in terms of such crimes as abuse on any level and fraud. Seniors, as with you and I, are experts in their own lives.  Rather than rushing in to impose our “plan” it is imperative to take the time to listen and creatively source out options.  Some folks in the housing and care industry say seniors want choices. This is likely true, however we believe even more fundamental than that is security and belonging.  Seniors want to know that should their health or their spouse’s health fail, they will be supported as a member of the team and not an object to move through the system with the least resistance possible.

Empowering seniors means the senior is at the center of discussions and planning for their lives.  Rather than crisis management, that is responding to various issues at the time of a significant shift in health, economics, etc. there is a well thought out plan in place to support the senior into successful aging.  Estate and will planning, personal directive,  familiarizing oneself and family with community programs and supports such as public health, home care, leisure and lifestyle planning, identifying roles of family and friends should there be a health crisis is crucial to well-being.   Seniors and the general public and government needs to be aware and educated on their needs and wants.  First and foremost seniors need to be viewed as citizens and not just consumers.  A healthy community is comprised of individuals who enjoy a setting where their contribution is central to the overall wellbeing of the community.  It is toward this aim that the Alberta Council on Aging works to improve the quality of life for Seniors.   A community which is inclusive and values all members of society is a healthy, vibrant community and easily recognizable.  Have a look at your family home, business, school, church… does it empower the seniors in your life…is it Senior Friendly™?

Donna Durand, Executive Director, Alberta Council on Aging

To find out more on becoming Senior Friendly™ contact the Alberta Council on Aging 1.888.423.9666

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