Older Americans Month: Engage at Every Age

By Gary A. Officer

We are a nation that enjoys a good celebration. We rightly celebrate our nation’s Veterans. We cheerfully celebrate the lives and legacies of past Presidents; and, with somber observance, each year we now celebrate the life of Dr. Martin King.

There’s also a group of Americans, who transcend race, religion and geography, with whom each of us, can relate: Our nation’s older Americans.

May is Older Americans Month, established in 1963 to highlight conditions of extreme poverty among our older citizens. The month serves as a reminder of the unique role they have in the daily lives of our families, communities and our nation’s economy.

According to the Administration on Community Living, when Older Americans month was first introduced by President Kennedy, only 17 million older Americans lived past their 65 birthday. About a third of those older Americans lived in poverty and, there were few programs to meet their needs. Many of those affected by poverty and exclusion emerged from a group we commonly refer to as our “greatest generation:” The men and women who had lived through the great depression, served in our nation’s armed forces and, helped to build our nation’s economy as civilians.

Successive Presidents have issued proclamations continuing May as Older Americans Month. At its core, the month provides a well-intended opportunity for us to celebrate our older neighbors and family members within communities across the nation. But we can do more than simply issue proclamations. We need to recognize the continued contributions of Older Americans within our nation’s economy. Indeed Older Americans – hereafter defined as 50 and older – are a demographic group that is vital to our nation’s economic success.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, those that are 50-years plus represent the largest segment of the workforce. Older workers bring high levels of skills and emotional maturity that are essential to the long-term well-being of their employers. Yet in spite of their obvious workforce value, Older Americans remain the victims of continued age discrimination, and are often denied opportunities for job openings and advancement.

One of the greatest barriers for workforce opportunity is the perception that older Americans lack the necessary technological skills to bring value into the workforce. Not true. At Senior Service America, we have found through a recent study of older workers in Tennessee that 87% of those that remain employed demonstrate high levels of technological proficiency if they remain in the workforce.

A recent study by AARP, “Getting Connected Older Americans Embrace Technology to Enhance Their Lives,” confirms that Americans over the age of 50 have fully embraced technology in their daily lives. According to a national survey, 90% of adults over age 50 own a computer, 70% have a smartphone and, over 40% own a tablet. Among adults over age 50, 90% say they use their smartphones to send instant messages, texts or emails and over 75% find them handy for getting directions or traffic information. This age group also uses them for purchasing apps, surfing the internet, getting news and accessing social media, the AARP research found.

The successful integration of older Americans into the Labor Force requires real employment opportunities. For low-income Americans the one program that serves this purpose is the Senior Community Service Employment Program or “SCSEP.” Established under Title V of the Older Americans Act, SCSEP is the nation’s only workforce development program targeted to our nation’s Older Workers. Though not in the headlines, SCSEP is also one of the crown jewels of the great society anti-poverty programs.

Through SCSEP, a former Harvard University instructor who had fallen onto hard times found an opportunity to engage in community service within her local anti-poverty agency in Eastern Massachusetts. She later became SCSEP Program Director at the agency.

Through SCSEP, a former government minister and refugee from war torn Liberia, was provided the opportunity to serve her new community in Belleville, Illinois. After a successful stint working with her host agency, Caritas Family Solutions, this person transitioned into the agency as a staffer – assisting those, like her, who are seeking the opportunity to re-enter the workforce.

Older Americans Month provides us with the opportunity to express our appreciation to the thousands of employers who continue to provide opportunities for our older workers, and to the many community based organizations who provide care for those in need.

Older Americans Month is a time to express our appreciation to the many who have served our nation. It is also a time, according to Merrill Lynch, for us to acknowledge Older Americans for contributing over $78 billion to the economy through acts of volunteerism.

Let us continue to honor and celebrate our nation’s older Americans. However, while doing so we should also recognize – through job action and real employment – their continued role as a vital segment of our nation’s economy.

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