Codi Schreck: Are we doing all we can for the older adults in our lives?

One study claims that one quarter of adults 65+ are considered to be socially isolated.

We’ve heard that “with age comes experience.” And with that lived experience often comes different ideas, more knowledge and ways to do better. But we seem to be making older adults in our communities more invisible and not seeing the worth of their age, experience and other benefits which could help offer many of us a missing perspective.

Older adults are one of the fastest growing groups in the United States. With people aging better and living longer, it is projected 80.8 million Americans will be 65+ in 2040. As a country, state and community, we need to advocate for this population and recognize how much they have to offer. We need to be open to ideas and plans to help enable them to live fulfilling lives they deserve and continue to be a vital part of our population.

During the COVID-19 pandemic many older adults became isolated due to being considered more vulnerable to severe illness, for some, it has been difficult to reintegrate into society. One of the greatest challenges for older adults is isolation and loneliness. One study claims that one quarter of adults 65+ are considered to be socially isolated. Isolation and loneliness can cause greater risk of negative health outcomes such as heart disease, stroke and depression. Efforts to address the isolation of older adults can include promoting intergenerational interaction. These interactions can bridge generation gaps and provide opportunities for learning and sharing experiences. This could include reading with students at schools, teaching board games at after-school programs or participating in an “expert” event at a library to share some of their past experiences with youth. Encouraging volunteerism with older adults could help give them ways to contribute to their communities and share some of their interests and skills.

We also need to do our part for age-friendly communities that are accessible and safe to the needs of older adults. UTA offers a 50% reduced rate for older adults. Many people utilize this option, but there are barriers that sometimes make it unsafe for older adults to even get to the bus stop. In the winter, my 9-year-old son can traipse across unshoveled and cracked sidewalks on his way to school in the morning, but an older adult could be housebound for many days if these sidewalks aren’t cleared to safely use. This could be the difference in an older adult getting to a doctor appointment, getting groceries for the week or missing a chance for social interaction.

Lifelong learning provides opportunities for adults to engage in education, workshops or specialty classes in something they have always had an interest in. Many of these classes can be done in-person which would include the added social benefit but for some older adults who are not physically able to attend or feel intimidated at the idea of joining a class alone, they can participate in classes virtually. This still has the benefit of keeping them mentally engaged and can help address the lack of schedule so many older adults find themselves experiencing. Along with this option is the importance of helping our older adult friends and family with access to technology. Older adults can communicate and deepen intergenerational relationships with family members if they have access and guidance on how to use a smartphone, table or video chat.

We might assume the older adults in our lives already have this knowledge or feel they don’t care about some of these things, but we must have conversations and do what we can to help them participate in their own lives. Too often we are dismissing older adults and their valuable contributions to the community and sometimes more importantly, to our families. We need to do better to promote a culture of respect and dignity for older adults and improve fostering a sense of their worth and value. We are all guilty at times of walking around an older adult who is moving slowly or not wanting to take the time to stop and chat with someone because we don’t feel we have the time, but in these moments, we may be enriched with their knowledge, stories and experience and create a more inclusive space for older adults to lead more fulfilling, healthy and connected lives.

As this next holiday season approaches, consider spending some time engaging in conversation with the older adults in your life. Ask for advice or their feelings on the latest story in the news. Check to see if they have what they need to feel safe and connected. This conversation could end up being a gift to you both.

Codi Schreck

Codi Schreck is a life-long resident of Salt Lake City. After graduating from the University of Utah 20 years ago, she has returned this fall as a graduate student in the Master of Social Work program.

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