A girlfriend phoned me recently about her experience at an electronics store for a cell phone problem. “We don’t normally help with this,” the young saleslady told my friend, and then added: “Young people don’t like older people like you, but since I was raised by my grandparents, I’m going to help.”
That statement’s mixed message comes on the heels of the Women’s Marches that were anything but ageist. It also showcases Bette Davis’ comment: “Getting old is not for sissies.”
Davis was right, however, the real sissies aren’t older people, but our increasingly ageist and sexist government and culture.
Let’s get back to the saleslady who was raised by her grandparents. The 2010 Census reported that the sole caregivers for 4.9 million grandchildren are their grandparents. This is double the number reported in 2000. Economic factors, drug problems and family-structure changes are fueling this upward trend. Nationwide, one-fifth of the 2.7 million grandparents raising grandchildren have incomes below the poverty level, and if they walked away, their grandkids would be in the foster system. Who sees this as a priority and what programs deal with the issue? Good question.
As poverty increases in America, its face is predominantly that of an older woman, and not because older women outnumber older men. Women accumulate less retirement wealth than men. They have lower wages and their caregiving responsibilities contribute to shortened careers. Which brings us to America’s retirement crisis.
The “Aging California’s Retirement Crisis” report stated: “While the retirement crisis is national in scope, California seniors face high costs of living, and the state ranks near the bottom in workplace access to a pension or 401(k).” As a result, three out of 10 California seniors cannot meet basic needs, and most are older woman.
Poverty and retirement are only two, urgent issues facing an aging population, whose numbers demand action. By 2035, older Californians (age 60 and older) will increase by 64 percent, to 12 million. Sadly, when it comes to senior needs, California and the nation employ a blowtorch approach to melt glacier-sized problems.
The California Department of Aging funnels federal funds to agencies on aging, whose source is a horrendously underfunded and frequently delayed reauthorization of the Older Americans Act. This means vulnerable adults suffer long delays for critical services such as health, nutrition, transportation, caregiving, legal services and more.
Where’s the public outrage? Well, if no one knows about this, you have the answer.
The state’s principal advocate and major advisory body on senior issues to the governor is the California Commission on Aging. Unfortunately, advisory groups are often all bark and no bite. The commission has only four positions and a small budget, so the question is: How can such a small agency address the numerous, critical, senior issues across California? The simple truth is, it can’t.
Besides those two agencies, the Legislature should be a champion for seniors. But even here, there are huge problems. Here’s one. While the Assembly has a standing committee for Aging and Long-Term Care, the Senate does not. When I asked the reason for this from legislative staffers, I was told there’s no money for a Senate committee, and that other committees such as Health can hear aging bills. I’m sorry, but these are convenient excuses.
So here’s an idea: Let’s stop focusing on age wherever possible when it concerns critical social issues and start using a concerted intergenerational approach.
Government has designated aging as a category as it did funding streams for those categories. It’s time to realize that this institutionalizes fragmentation and creates barriers.
If California’s Legislature embraced an intergenerational approach, it would stop pitting children against seniors for funding and services. An intergenerational approach would focus on the human factor rather than the age factor, and allow innovation.
An intergenerational approach won’t solve all problems. It will require hard work and incremental measures, something government has never been great at doing. Also, intergenerational actions aren’t for sissies. They’re for thinkers, committed leaders and planners with vision.
As for that saleswoman, I want to invite her to have coffee with my friend and me, and show her that Gertrude Stein nailed it when she said: “We are always the same age inside.”
Dev Berger is retired from government and working as a private health policy consultant. She has served on aging advisory groups and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.