Honor our elders by creating truly senior-friendly Austin

Last month the Austin American-Statesman ran a series of articles and columns about the rapidly changing landscape of Austin’s population. It’s true, Central Texas is getting older. Quickly.

Jeremy Schwartz’s excellent piece (“Austin unprepared for wave of poor seniors,” April 8) detailed the challenges we face in planning for the growing senior population in particular for low-income seniors. Recently, Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell announced his plan to create a task force on aging to begin identifying and implementing immediate and long-term strategies that will build on our community’s assets and strengthen our infrastructure.

People who work on a daily basis to increase the independence, safety and health of seniors and their loved ones understand well the challenges that lie ahead. However, we also have the privilege of seeing on a daily basis what many of us forget about seniors: their wealth of experience, their continued commitment to community and their willingness to be of service.

The shift in population we face requires careful planning, but it also presents compelling opportunities for this creative, dynamic city to come together and develop a senior-friendly community with multi-generational pay-offs.

The voices contributing to that ongoing dialogue now include the post-World War II baby boomers. The generation that has defined “progress” for much of the past century will continue to do so as they explore and reshape ways to grow older. Traditional conventions of aging are being abandoned. Many older adults no longer plan on quiet or secluded lives defined by family and home. They plan on being connected to friends, activities, issues and the broader community for as long as possible. If we are smart, we will find ways to connect with and make use of the resources and perspectives they bring to the table.

The increased availability, for example, of highly skilled, long-term volunteer placements will be a huge boon to local nonprofits. Older adults transitioning away from full-time careers bring a lifetime of experience to temporary jobs, training programs, part-time work and other positions that can create a more robust staff with less financial investment for businesses. Their expertise should play a larger role in the educational system through substitute teaching, tutoring and professional mentoring.

As Austin grows, there is also the exciting prospect of engineering and building our homes, neighborhoods and communities to become more senior-friendly. Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros and Jane Hickie of the Stanford Center on Longevity were in Austin last week to promote their new book, “Independent for Life: Homes and Neighborhoods for an Aging America.” It is a digest of the best practices happening in communities across the nation in engaging design, policy and aging experts to help seniors live independently, safely and happily in their own homes for as long as possible.

Some of the best assets we have to contribute to a senior-friendly Austin are already on the ground. The Aging Services Council of Central Texas is a strong network of organizations and individuals working together to ensure older adults and caregivers have the information and services they need to support themselves and family members as they age. This includes innovative best-practice programs we can build upon in concert with other new endeavors.

Leffingwell proclaimed May as Older Americans Month. Since 1963 the Administration on Aging has promoted Older Americans Month to help us connect with seniors, their achievements and contributions. Many of us read that sentence and assume those achievements and contributions would have happened early in life — military service, professional endeavors or parenthood. In fact, the purpose of Older Americans Month is to help us connect with seniors now, and to honor the ways they continue to enrich the lives of everyone around them.

Yes, we must plan and plan smartly for the challenges we face. But, I challenge our community to also consider the assets that come with the growth of our senior population. We can honor older adults by making use of their valuable contributions in new and innovative ways, and by committing to creating a truly senior-friendly Austin for all of us to call home.

Atwood is CEO of Family Eldercare and Co-chair of the Aging Services Council of Central Texas. Find this article at:
http://www.statesman.com/opinion/honor-our-elders-by-creating-truly-senior-friendly-2379600.html

Published in the Austin American Statesman
Tuesday, May 29, 2012