If we do it right, eventually we'll no longer need to at all.
This is Older Americans Month.
Most people don’t know that. In fact, the ones who do more likely work for a company or organization that provides “aging” goods or services, or promotes public policy.
“Truthfully, I don’t pay attention to Older Americans Month,” says New York Times columnist Paula Span. “When you write a column called The New Old Age, every month is elders month. Besides, this one seems to exist mostly for public relations people pushing various products and requests for coverage. I doubt one person in 100 could even tell you which month is Older Americans Month, or would know that it exists.”
The way American society designates a National Day, Week, or Month is an arbitrary process –– sometimes it’s done by the government, but, as Span points out, it’s usually established by a PR campaign as a publicity tool for fundraising, putting on a conference, or selling amenities.
The commemorations cover a spectrum from the lighthearted to the lofty. In May alone, there’s National Lumpy Rug Day, National Etiquette Week, and National Asparagus Month. On the other hand, there’s also National Foster Care Day, Teacher Appreciation Week, and Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.
No matter the level of significance, all of these celebrations have one thing in common: They are time-limited. As a result, our collective attention to any of these events (if we think about them at all) is tentative and temporary as we move on to another one. It’s like taking out the good china from the hutch cabinet to set the table for an annual celebratory meal. The dinnerware, never used the rest of the year, adds to the aura of the special occasion. Afterward, not being considered proper or practical for everyday use, the set is immediately stored away and easily forgotten once the event is over.
And that’s a problem when the commemoration concerns a population that experiences discrimination. Whether it’s Black History Month (February), Women’s History Month (March), LGBTQ Pride Month (June), National Hispanic Heritage Month (mid-September to mid-October), National Disability Employment Awareness Month (October), or National Native American Heritage Month (November), each gesture of symbolic honor is instead a social indictment of the ways in which we categorize and marginalize that specific group.
Unfortunately, that is often how such national celebrations work. And because of this, they don’t fulfill a potentially greater social goal –– one that, if celebrated in the right way, should eventually eliminate their very existence.
In the case of Older Americans Month, the designation is a trivial distinction that inadvertently sends the message “If old people are really valuable (and valued), we wouldn’t have to set aside 31 consecutive days each year to remind ourselves that this is true.”
In addition, as a group, older adults are unique. “It’s puzzling that we feel the need to celebrate older Americans, as if they are somehow peculiar and different from the rest of us,” says Paul Irving, Chairman of both Encore.org and the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging. “In fact, all of us are older or will be older. Unlike gender, race, sexuality, religion, or political belief, growing old is common ground, something uniting, not differentiating.”
Should we then stop celebrating Older Americans Month and similar commemorations?
Wendl Kornfeld, founder of Community as Family educational groups and an activist for solo agers, strongly believes that they serve a social purpose. “There could well be reasoned opposition to stopping specially designated months,” she explains. “For example, parents and teachers may feel that Black History Month is essential to educating children about Black history, providing strong role models, inspiring emulation, and actively working toward equality in every aspect of American life.”
In the case of older adults, Kornfeld suggests that “older adults (who often feel invisible) may think their designated month brings attention to their continuing positive contributions to society, as well as identifying what still must be done to adequately serve this demographic’s particular needs….We all have to be in the fabric of American life.”
If older adults are threads in the fabric of American life, they are merely loosely woven into it, mainly due to the myopic perception that people in later life are a needy population in ongoing, inevitable decline and no longer productive in the same ways younger and middle-aged people are. If and when olders are recognized at all, it is usually in regard to how much of an economic burden they place on younger generations and how to forestall it.
Case in point: The American Jobs Plan “to put $400 billion toward expanding access to quality, affordable home- or community-based care for aging relatives and people with disabilities” is meant to improve –– in a passive way –– the quality of life of people as they age without much consideration for how they also could and should engage with their communities by actively participating in them.
Fortunately, President Biden’s Proclamation on Older Americans Month, 2021 recognizes that during the pandemic “older Americans have stepped up to support their families, friends, and neighbors. They are among our essential workers, volunteers, and donors, bolstering their communities and inspiring others to do the same.” The President is “committed to ensuring older adults are central in our country’s recovery efforts.”
While the goals of the proclamation are honorable, the document doesn’t acknowledge the widespread fear of aging and resulting prejudice and discrimination against old people that necessitate calling Americans’ attention to ageism in the first place. Such omissions can cause what Kornfeld calls a “Don’t take my month away from me” reaction among members of a group who struggle against social marginalization.
We need to rethink what these commemorations are really about. Social justice advocates should use these days, weeks, and months to hold “reverse” public relations campaigns that call for a future in which these celebrations will no longer be necessary. That will happen only when these groups’ needs, values, and skills become integral to everyone else’s lives.
“It’s hard to ‘celebrate’ Older Americans Month in any traditional way when the pandemic exposed how rampant ageism is,” says Director and Chief Catalyst Janine Vanderburg of Changing the Narrative in Colorado. “We’re using the opportunity to coalesce a group of advocates to amplify our collective voices on social media. Our goal? To increase awareness of ageism and the potential contributions of older adults to communities and workplaces … and to advocate for effective solutions, including stronger age-discrimination laws, and the inclusion of older adults in stimulus-funding workforce development programs.”
If a national commemorative celebration of a particular subpopulation is to mean anything at all, it must call attention to the ways in which we overlook the members of that group and inspire us to work harder at fully engaging with them. It’s time to put away the good china once and for all and instead give all people, including older adults, a seat at the daily table.
“Instead of age,” asserts Irving, “let’s celebrate our diversity, roles and responsibilities, challenges and accomplishments. Well-intentioned pats on the back for nothing more than living long send the wrong message. It’s not about the number of years we live, but what we do with them.”
In other words, this is Older Americans Month…but it needn’t be.