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Sunday, May 28, 2023

It Takes A Village Elder: Older Americans Month Turns 60

Older Americans Month, formerly ‘Senior Citizens Month,’ turned 60 years old this year. It was America’s thirty-fifth president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who signed a proclamation on April 18, 1963, that established what has come to be known as Older Americans Month.

The idea was proposed to President Kennedy by members of the National Council of Senior Citizens.  Despite celebrating the achievements of past and current older Americans, particularly those who served militarily, the proposed holiday was also an occasion to honor forgone generations who sacrificed personally that this country might achieve its otherwise unprecedented wealth and power. 

This is particularly true of African American elders. Whether ignorance regarding the African American legacy, an American legacy, it is either historically lost or ignored that Americans of African ancestry officially arrived in North America in 1619, twelve years after Jamestown, Virginia was settled by Europeans, in 1607. They brought with them the multi-millennia African tradition of reverence for elders.

Not only did transplanted African village elders resume their status at the top of the social and cultural pecking order among slaves in the antebellum South. The history also establishes Black people in America, along with the Pilgrims, as this country’s oldest residents other than indigenous peoples, revealing the absurdity of the racist ‘go-back-where-you-came-from’ taunts by bigots.

The impetus for the original Senior Citizens Month in 1963, unfortunately, was not born so much from American society’s veneration of elders, as much as a looming economic and public relations crisis pertaining to the dire economic circumstances of millions of seniors, among them many World War I and World War II veterans. 

Even in 2023, there are more than 100,000 living World War II vets. Older Americans Month is certainly a well-deserved honor bestowed to America’s seniors and aging soldiers, but the elevated dignity conferred to the country’s elders as a class hardly exists.

A May 12, 2018, question to the online community message board, Quora, asked: “Why does our society shun the elderly, where other cultures revere older people?  Two generations after JFK established Senior Citizens Month, American popular culture still acknowledges that elderly Americans are still not regarded in the highest esteem by virtue of their elder status exclusively, as they are in African and Asian cultures, for instance.

As a national resource during a period in America when wisdom, experience, and patience, virtues most abundant among older populations, are needed more than ever to address a host of circumstances threatening the country’s viability and sustainability, namely the well-being of our children and their preparation to inherit and manage this world, relying upon older Americans is more vital than ever.

It can be argued that the American cultural practice of relegating millions of mentally astute, able-bodied seniors to institutions where they sometimes spend decades watching grass grow has cost the country in untold, immeasurable ways.  

When President Kennedy proclaimed Senior Citizens Month in 1963, there were 17 million Americans over age 55, 9% of the country’s total population of 189 million. Today the over 55-year-old segment of Americans represent nearly 30% of roughly 325 million of the total population, nearly 100 million persons.

These senior demographics represent both a new challenge to America and a unique opportunity. Illness associated with aging correlates with a critical redistribution of resources to provide additional medical services, caretaker assistance, nutritional requirements, and institutional and residential rehabilitation of living spaces to accommodate elder lifestyles.

On the other hand, there are millions of retired professionals, craftsmen, artists, scientists, academicians, politicians, clergy, medical professionals, among others, who are able to ply their trades and exercise their expertise, who haven’t been called upon to answer America’s urgent contemporaneous needs.

Among our country’s most pressing emergencies, gun violence and the plight of our youth and young adults, older Americans, a critically underutilized resource, represent the best solution to mentor, advise, train, and nurture this nation’s future parents, voters, and leaders. One of America’s greatest shortcomings may be the social and cultural disconnect between our youngest and eldest citizens. Imagine the vibrant two-way learning and enlightenment that could take place.

An ancient Central-African proverb of the Ntomba people says that “a youth that does not cultivate friendship with the elderly is like a tree without roots.” Perhaps older Americans’ companionship, empathy, and life experience could substitute for much of the electronic babysitting currently enculturating our children. 

 Perhaps many of the wayward expressions exhibited by our youth might be curtailed by the compassionate involvement of seniors, many of whom are languishing themselves due to inactivity.  Perhaps many young people are acting out because they lack the affection and approval that only wise elders can provide.

‘The Child Who Is Not Embraced by the Village Will Burn It Down to Feel Its Warmth’ – African proverb.

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