Boomers should focus on politics of aging

May 15, 2009
By

May is Older Americans Month. To celebrate, Ethos, southwest Boston’s principal elder services not-for-profit, hosts SeniorPalooza, a month-long, neighborhood-wide celebration of aging. Ethos started SeniorPalooza five years ago in West Roxbury and moved on from there to Roslindale, Hyde Park and last year, Mattapan, where we hosted our first bilingual celebration. This year, it completes the tour by hooking up with Central Boston Elder Services, another major eldercare provider, and bringing SeniorPalooza to Jamaica Plain, one of Boston’s most dynamic and progressive neighborhoods.

A celebration mostly for older people, Palooza also wants the rest of us to ask the same tough questions as our elders: What will happen when we retire now that our 401(k)s have tanked? How will we afford it, if and when we need help at home? Will the community be there for us, or will we end up in nursing homes?

The truth of the matter is that we are in denial about aging. And, no, I don’t mean crow’s feet, gray hair and turkey necks—personal concerns that, if anything, we are far too obsessed with. What I mean is the poli-tics of aging: the response society makes to the economic and physical constraints of old age.

With the aging of baby boomers, people born between 1946 and 1965, this is a topic of immense and, for many, particularly in JP, immediate importance. Yet the quality of the discourse is in almost inverse proportion to its significance. While everyone acknowledges the power of the senior vote, there is no real political leader-ship on aging issues. Our governor does not even have an Elder Affairs Secretary and, despite its length, the presidential campaign produced nothing of substance on the topic of aging.

We have not always lacked leaders. In the 1970s, a Democratic Congressman from Florida named Claude Pepper pushed through the Older Americans Act; a Republican governor from Massachusetts named Frank Sargent created something called Home Care; and a retired church worker named Maggie Kuhn invented senior power through an organization called the Gray Panthers. Where are our Claude Peppers, Frank Sargents and Maggie Kuhns today?

Famously, into the moment, baby boomers are at risk of putting off until tomorrow what must be addressed to-day. Our old-age safety net is under assault, funding for services is frozen, and institutional biases perme-ate long-term care. As an Ethos board member, an elder from Roslindale who cared for her dying husband, con-tinually warns her younger colleagues: “You have no idea what’s in store for you. No idea.”
Through SeniorPalooza, Ethos hopes to spark the grassroots conversations that are prerequisites for change. Economic insecurity; the stresses of care-giving; the physical and mental frailty of advanced age; and the crushing costs of long-term care are issues that desperately need a spotlight. With its history of activism and large cohort of boomers, what better place to start than here in JP? Who knows? Maybe there’s a Maggie Kuhn out there, biding her time.

Dale Mitchell
Executive Director, Ethos
Jamaica Plain