Old Is In the Eye of the Beholder

May 18, 2017

By Nikki Goldstein, MSW, Executive Director, Crown Center for Senior Living

As we recognize May as older adult month, it begs the question, what is an “older adult”? Older than who? Older than what? Isn’t everyone over the age of 21 an older adult? Other than Benjamin Button, aren’t we all aging?

As professionals engaged with serving an older population with limited resources, it is incumbent upon our staff to continually examine our perceptions of aging and make sure that we don’t hold misperceptions that might harm those we seek to serve. In fact, it is possible society’s notions about aging and the aged are not only misperceived, but actually hinder our collective investment in elder care.

When governmental programs, legislation, and policies for older adults were originally put into place in the 1960s, the average life expectancy was quite different than in 2017; and yet the age eligibility for programs has often remained constant.  The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development dictates that one is eligible for affordable housing for the elderly at age 62 and Medicare kicks in at 65.

And yet, Crown Center for Senior Living is home and a community center to several generations of people. A person 62 years of age grew up in a vastly different world and has very different life experience than did a 98 year old. There are many layers of diversity about which to be sensitive—the obvious ones of race, gender, religion; but the more nuanced diversities of generational cohort, educational background, family constellation, employment past and present interests, experiences, culture, financial resources, and values are just as important.

One of my first classes as a graduate student in the Brown School of Social Work sought to instill a sense of inquiry—teaching us not to “assume.” Students were told by an experienced therapist who taught the class, “Don’t assume that all widows are grieving.” This lesson has stayed with me throughout my decades long career. We must consciously refuse to get drawn into the stereotypes of aging and the aged.

Jean Millner, Circle@Crown Cafe Manager serving resident Sandra Mareno

Many of the family foundations, individual donors, and local corporations who give to Crown Center do so because of a deeply held belief that age and income shouldn’t be a barrier to living a full life, keeping one’s dignity intact. The Board’s approach to creating this caring community expanded a few years ago when we created the Circle@Crown program model. The expansion includes a café that’s open to the public, a community garden, fitness facility, and culinary studio. We hope you’ll come for a cup of coffee and stay for a program.

We’ve also been positively confronted by the reality that our assumptions and perceptions are often just plain wrong. In advance of the Circle@Crown expansion, our staff and board participated in listening tours engaging with current residents and community participants to gauge how they may feel throwing open the doors to welcome more people to our community center and services. We assumed Crown Center residents would feel reluctance and loss of control. Then pow, an 83 year old woman sets us straight and told us – she doesn’t have the same friends she had ten years ago—in fact, she’s making new friends all the time. The only thing in her life that is constant is change.

We may also assume people who are “old” are “good,” and find it easy to follow community rules—and yet we find this to be way off base. We may assume that our clients need assistance from others, but so many are themselves the helpers as workers, volunteers, and caregivers. A person of any age is still a whole person.

For those of us working with, for, and on behalf of people considered older adults this is a reality that must shape our perceptions and in turn, the perceptions of our community. Perhaps it is natural to think of people who are older than we as being old; but let’s keep in mind that they are us—just as unique and varied as people of any age who deserve to choose to live with dignity and hopefully while enjoying a great cup of coffee.

Visit Crown Center and their community café at 8350 Delcrest Drive, University City 63124.


This post is part of the “Older Adults & Aging” series of the Institute for Public Health’s blog. Subscribe to email updates or follow us on Twitter and Facebook to receive notifications about our latest blog posts.

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