Dec 22

Independent Living Column

By: BARBARA BLANCHARD

When I was in my early 30s attending a seminar, I met a mature woman named Maggie Kuhn (1905-1995). She referred to herself as a “wrinkled radical” who thought that senior citizens “constituted America’s biggest untapped and undervalued human energy source.” She considered her wrinkles “badges of distinction.”

In 1970, Maggie had been forced into retirement at age 65, so she decided to become an advocate for a vibrant and active aging population. She said that older people needed to seize control of their lives and stay active in the world, working for issues in which they believe. Her candor, charisma and lively approach to the needs of senior citizens captivated me. I never forgot her, nor her words of encouragement to always give back to the community regardless of the generation one was born into.

Now, I am a component of that “human energy source” Maggie referenced. Our society has come a long way from the days of forced retirement; today’s seniors are more educated, healthier and more involved with their society. From the generation of traditionalists (those born before 1946) to the baby boomer generation (those born from 1946 to 1964), there are more than

80 million of us. Clearly, America’s graying generations are a power to be reckoned with.

But too often individuals identify with their life’s work and feel unneeded or insignificant when they retire. It is a myth that old age is useless. We should not be scrap-piled like old computers, but rather our energies and attentions repurposed and recycled toward issues that interest us and serve others. An energetic and engaged lifestyle can encourage others to expand the quality of their lives and help transform the process of aging.

As for me, I may be retired from receiving a paycheck, but I am not retired from giving back to my community with the years of experience and knowledge that remain in my being. One of the boards that I serve on is the governing board for Missoula Aging Services. I admire its motto: “We’re proud of our years.” We should all be proud of our acquired experience, our knowledge and our capacity to cope with life changes. This combined pool of resources of today’s older vital adults – those who embrace being engaged and involved in the community – are a huge asset to society as a whole.

Of course, not all older adults are fortunate to be blessed with good health or circumstances that allow them to volunteer their time. Those who encounter these challenges often need services to assist them. Retired, talented and vibrant senior volunteers are key in helping MAS achieve its mission: to promote the independence, dignity and health of older adults and those who care for them. They serve as Meals on Wheels drivers, office staff, Senior Companions, educators on Medicare fraud issues and consultants for questions about prescription drug plans.

By promoting the independence of those in need by the inter-dependence on those who offer the help, MAS is true to its vision, which “celebrates people of all abilities as they age.” I’m proud to be involved with an organization that is at the forefront of harnessing “gray power” to achieve such worthwhile goals in western Montana. As the number of older Americans continues to increase, the only way we will be able to support all their care needs will be with the help of volunteers.

However, MAS does not limit its services to just the elderly. At a recent national conference on the future of aging attended by MAS CEO Susan Kohler, intergenerational and cross-generational volunteering were cited as necessary components in order for a community to age successfully. How lucky we are to live in such a community. Already MAS musters volunteers to help community events such as school reading programs and science fairs, outdoor and sporting events, support for our troops, care for veterans at home, help for the disabled and so much more.

Missoula County is, indeed, a wonderful place to live and retire. We can be sure this will continue as we older adults who are able choose to repurpose and recycle our energies for the good of all. By doing so, we will be helping foster a community culture that promotes successful aging through social responsibility.

Wouldn’t you rather be part of this “human energy source” that celebrates people of all abilities as they age and wears wrinkles as badges of distinction?

Barbara Blanchard spent 35 years in the Human Resources profession with multinational Fortune 500 companies. She chairs the Advocacy Committee for the Missoula Aging Services governing board.

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