We know that a whole range of societal changes contribute to isolation in aging. Changes in our birth rates, family structures and our proximity to relatives are all shifts that have been well documented. Additionally, there are common occurrences late in life that can create isolating circumstances: a late career job change, retiring, moving into different housing or a change in cultural surroundings. But, I think there is much more to this. As a result of the pervasive ageism in America, isolation as one ages is exacerbated. Throughout our society, we either stereotype older people or exclude them from critical planning efforts—or both. By excluding, whether purposefully or inadvertently, the contributions and perspectives of older adults from spaces where major decisions are made, we create a society where it is increasingly more difficult for them to thrive.
Our communities, whether rural or urban, should be safe and age-friendly from walkability to bus routes to housing design. Our workplaces should allow people to work as long as they are able to perform the duties of their job and recognize that older adults have a lot to offer, especially to young people who are newer to the workforce. Housing should be both affordable and available to everyone, and especially those that reach retirement age. We should design and build housing that will work for any resident, whether they are old, young or disabled. Technology should be accessible to those who did not learn how to operate personal devices at a very young age.
However, in order for these things to exist in our society, we must address the underlying causes of systemic ageism. Without doing so, we will continue to exclude a great portion of our population. We, inevitably, will continue to tell our future, older selves, “At some point, your opinion and needs are no longer important to greater society.” We must recognize that the risk factors of isolation are only more pronounced as a person ages because of their inability to have a “seat at the table.” In every industry, and particularly in technology, it is imperative that we stop expecting older people to create their own solutions without ever giving them the tools to do so.
Millennials have a unique role in addressing the ageism that has fostered a culture of leaving seniors out of the equation. Now the largest generation in the workforce, millennials are represented in every industry. Instead of being yet another generation that expects older people to adapt and integrate themselves in a society built around the young and able-bodied, what if we strived for deliberate inclusion? And, what does taking responsibility look like?
First, the thoughts, solutions and perspectives of those experiencing isolation should be at the forefront of every initiative around social isolation and age-friendly communities. This can look as simple as reconciling the gap in communication used by different generations. It may also involve urban planning that includes realistic walk times at intersections, or smart phones that do not operate on intuition that only a young app developer may possess. Including all people in our society is not just an idealistic, fuzzy feeling, it’s good for business! Imagine having a community where transportation was not a barrier to carrying out daily errands, or relying on technology to purchase home goods was not a frustrating, humiliating experience.
What if, from the beginning, we were cognizant of the difficulties that can result from a society increasing its dependency upon technological advances? What if—by simply asking—we were to realize that seniors are more than capable of providing solutions to the barriers one experiences as they age?
Until we make the conscious, purposeful decision that older members of our community not only should, but have to be a part of planning the society we want to live in, we will find ourselves trying to fix the mistakes we’ve made or, worse, assume that the opinions and lives of seniors are not important. We must be aware that the built environment and social environment are interdependent. The culture shift necessary for such consideration would require the empathy to understand that most all of us, if we are so lucky, will experience the changes presented through aging. When we talk about the “special needs of seniors,” we should remember that these are considerations that we all deserve throughout our lifetime.
As a young, able-bodied person, accessibility and inclusion should be tenets I lift up out of empathy for others and, at the very least, out of self-interest! I know that a society in which there are barriers to participation and socialization for some of us will, inevitably, hurt us all.
(Photo via Flickr)