May is Older Americans Month and this year’s theme, “Age My Way,” is an essential conversation starter for our community — not only in Salt Lake County, but across the state of Utah. When I think about this theme, empowered, intentional and decision-focused aging comes to mind. This is the idea that when we are older, we’ll have the opportunity to make choices about how we live, who we live with, how we spend our time and money, who cares for us and even how we die.
While this is the reality for the more fortunate members of our communities, a brief visit to a long-term health care facility for low-income seniors serves as a stark reminder that it’s not the case for a great many.
We all want to envision a community in which older adults drive decision-making about the most important aspects of their lives. So, how do we get there? There are several things we can all do to build more age-friendly communities.
Take care of each other
Get to know the people in your neighborhood, especially the older adults, and look in on one another from time to time. When the pandemic began, my agency was flooded with calls from people worried about their older neighbors who wanted to help. Let’s not lose that energy as we emerge from the pandemic! Social isolation is still a real and pervasive issue among older adults. An act as simple as a weekly chat can make a big difference to an isolated senior’s health and well-being.
Whether you’re in the “looking at colleges” phase of life or the “looking at retirement communities” phase, planning for the future is crucial. Younger people should take saving for retirement seriously — open that IRA and start automatically saving. Older adults, on the other hand, have a myriad of things to plan for — home accessibility, health care coverage, and budgeting for a fixed income are just a few. Accepting the reality that all of us will grow old (if we are lucky!) and planning for that eventuality are the first crucial steps to being able to “Age Your Way.”
Advocate for older adults
Community resources and public policies on aging are an indicator of what society thinks of its elderly. When there are not enough units of affordable housing, nursing home beds, or accessible transportation options, it demonstrates that we aren’t truly honoring our elders. Changing this means speaking up for older adults and making sure the needs and concerns of older people are central in community conversations about the future. Ask candidates for public office how their platform helps older adults. Support businesses with fair hiring practices that don’t discriminate on race, gender, sexual orientation or age. Make caring about older adults a part of your values.
Know your resources
Area Agencies on Aging (AAAs) are federally designated organizations that provide resources and services for older adults in every stage of the aging continuum. Salt Lake County Aging & Adult Services is the AAA for Salt Lake County, but there is one in every community in Utah. Look them up, learn about how you can volunteer and familiarize yourself with your community’s senior resources before you need them. AAAs are positioning themselves to become like the windshield replacement industry: we want you to know who we are and how to find us before you ever break your windshield or in this case, need home delivered meals, caregiver respite or an evidence-based class on managing chronic pain.
“Age My Way” is an inspiring theme; it makes me hopeful that we can build a community in which choice drives decision-making about aging not just for some, but for all. Let’s work together to achieve it.
Paul Leggett is the director of Salt Lake County Aging & Adult Services, a division of Salt Lake County’s Human Services Department. He resides in South Jordan with his family.