To the Class of 2022: Age boldly, enjoy your journey

Published in RINewsToday on May 16, 2022

According to Research.com, this year commencement speakers at colleges and universities in Rhode Island will impart their “pearls of wisdom“ to 19,782 graduating college seniors and their families. The usual commencement speech, traditionally about 10 minutes in length, offers simple tips and observations that, if taken, just might offer the young graduates a more rewarding personal and professional life ahead. Social media platforms and websites will quickly disseminate this sage advice given by well-known lawmakers, judges, television personalities and CEOs, to millions across the globe.

Globe columnist Dan McGowan gives his readers in the Rhode Map, the paper’s free newsletter about Rhode Island, a who’s who list of well-known commencement speakers that will gather at Rhode Island’s 12 Colleges and Universities to give the Class of 2022 advice on making their new journey in the world amidst the continuing COVID-19 pandemic causing sweeping societal changes in the workplace, health care, and social activity. 

McGowan’s detailed listing of “marquee names” delivering commencement speeches at Rhode Island’s colleagues and universities are:  

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at Brown University; Emmy Award-winning actor and director Henry Winkler at  New England Institute of Technology; Human Resource Guru William J. Conaty at Bryant College; Rhode Island Governor Dan McKee at CCRI; Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman at Providence College;  Entrepreneur and Author Bruce Poon Tip, Founder of G Adventures; Miriam Hospital President Maria Ducharme at Rhode Island College, Deep Sea Explorer Robert Ballard noted for his work in undersea archeology at URI; Graphic designer, educator and Author Cheryl D. Miller at RISD; Navyn Salem, who founded the nonprofit Edesia, Inc. whose mission is to treat and prevent global malnutrition at Salve Regina; and Dr. Anthony Fauci, Chief Medical adviser to the president at Roger Williams University.

This year’s commencement speakers are very well-deserving of their honor to address Rhode Island’s graduating college seniors.  But if I had an opportunity to speak before the graduating class of 2022, here are my thoughts and tips I would give, centered on the importance of aging gracefully and boldly over your accumulating years, and they will accumulate faster than anyone could imagine.

Aging can be viewed as a life-long, unpredictable journey.  A slang phrase in Wikipedia sums up “a simple existential observation that life is full of unpredictable events. Over the years, you might have heard the phrase, “Shit Happens.” Many people choose to hold on to their fading youth, not wanting to look in the mirror to see wrinkles, sagging stomachs, and even gray hair.  They hold fiercely to their memories of the 1963 Pepsi Generation commercial that celebrated youth and active people.   

It’s so easy to say, accept and embrace your aging.  

You will be tempted to chase after prestige, power, the perfect relationship, or a high paying job.  I say being healthy is your most important possession you can have in your lifetime. Cherish it. Work towards it. URI Gerontologist Phil Clark once told me, “Use it or lose it. Stay as physically active as you can.”  “If you rest, you rust,” he says, noting that physical exercise elevates our mood and benefits our cardiovascular system, too. This conversation took place over 25 years ago, and I still remember this advice.  

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, a North Attleboro couple, Mark and Nancy Shorrock began dining daily, seven days a week, if their schedules permitted, at Spumoni’s Restaurant in Pawtucket.  Over the years, they developed personal relationships with around 30 couples who frequented the informal restaurant and bar. While not a support system, that informal group who knew each other innately, benefited the Shorrocks, and I would think all of the people who kept coming back as regularly as they did. 

The importance of being around others is documented in a 2017 national report. The Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH) report, released by AARP, cites strong scientific evidence that behavior changes and lifestyle habits can positively impact one’s brain health. It’s not uncommon for social networks to shrink as we age. “Research tells us that larger social networks may positively impact your health, well-being, even your cognitive functioning,” said Sarah Lock, AARP Senior vice president for Policy and GCBH Executive Director. 

So, as the decades fly by, work to maintain your social network of family and friends to maintain good cognitive functioning. And while you may build your on-line networks, do not overlook the greater importance of the in-person kind, those you break bread with, share what your children may be doing, or call just to hear a voice who knows a whole lot about you, without your even having to say it.      

Research also tells us that you can also reduce your risk of cognitive decline by exercising your brain. Take time in your busy day to read newspapers, magazines, and books, or even play a challenging crossword puzzle, build your vocabulary, learn a new skill, even play chess.

Being a volunteer can also be a protective buffer from the curve balls that life may throw at us as we age. “Volunteering can be medicine for the soul. It allows you to connect with other people, explore and remedy emerging community issues, make a difference as a caregiver or mentor and change lives. Volunteering is powerful and can define and redirect your life’s journey,” says Vincent Marzullo, who for 31 years served as RI’s National Service Director and still volunteers weekly at Hasbro Children’s Hospital.

When you require help, don’t be afraid to ask your family, friends or even professional colleagues for support and assistance. People will always go up the ladder of their careers, even down, too.  Take the opportunity to be there for not only people you know, but also strangers when they need a helping hand to jump-start their faltering personal relationships or professional careers. 

Time really does fly after you graduate college.  Don’t be afraid to pivot in your career – you may have spent 4 years or 8 years or many more studying and becoming an expert in a particular subject, but find your passion calls you to another career-path. Don’t be afraid to take the path that calls out the loudest for you. As you move into your middle or later years, view your life as a meaningful journey, living in the present, not tied to past experiences, nor possible future events. It’s the journey, not the end result, that you should focus on.

Amma, a well-known Hindu spiritual teacher, tells her millions of followers to view their life as a ‘canceled check.’ Let go of those past regrets, forgive yourself for those mistakes especially made in childhood and teenage years, more important those you made as you move into your middle or later years. Don’t regret passing up personal or professional opportunities, for others will follow, she says. Use your time on earth wisely; don’t waste it carrying the burdens of past guilt or personal grudges. Think about that.

View your life as being back in high school, learning from each positive and negative experience you encounter. When you confront life’s health, financial, and personal and professional challenges, keep a positive attitude. Don’t be overwhelmed by negative thoughts. Each day you will make daily choices as to how you will react to your problems. In these situations, you can either see the proverbial glass as either being “half-full” or “half-empty.” A positive attitude allows you to see a “half-full” glass, thus allowing you to successfully overcome the adversity.

As we grow older, we sometimes put too much energy into reflecting on our personal and professional defeats, being depressed on the “bad hands” we were dealt. Savor your victories, but always forgive yourself for your shortcomings and failures. Learning from your shortcomings and defeats will build a strong bridge to future successes.

Also, forgive others who have hurt you personally and professionally. You cannot live or reconcile your life peacefully if you are still holding onto grudges, anger, and bitterness, all tied to past relationships or negative employment experiences.

Writer Simon Kent tells us a powerful story about forgiveness in an article penned in 2013 on the Toronto Sun’s website. When Nelson Mandela’s National African party won the election that would end apartheid in South Africa, he forgave his white political foes, says Kent, noting that the power of forgiveness kept the black majority ruling party from seeking revenge.

According to Kent, at his 1994 inauguration, Prisoner 46664 — Nelson Mandela — had kept a seat set aside for a very special guest he wanted to witness his swearing-in as President, the highest office in the land. This person, one of his former jailers from Robben Island, where he was held for 18 years of hard labor. 

Why do we continue to hold anger, bitterness, and grudges against others? If Mandela can easily forgive his former jailor and a white society that kept his black brothers and sisters enslaved for centuries, why can’t you forgive others, too? 

Pass on your hard-earned wisdom. As you begin to accumulate more of life’s professional and personal experiences, share your story with others, especially those younger than you. By the time you reach your twilight years, you will have accumulated a huge reservoir of untapped wisdom gained from your life’s journey from making both good and bad decisions.  When taking on the new role of parent or grandparent, always continue to share your insights and lessons you have learned to your children and grandchildren.  The generations following you will lose out if you remain silent and keep your knowledge and history from them.

Get off the treadmill of life. Learn to slow down and enjoy the simple moments of your life. In her books and lectures, nationally-acclaimed author Connie Goldman, has stated that the simple act of watching a beautiful sunrise or sunset or even puttering around your garden can be as stimulating as a jam-packed calendar of activities.  

My final thought – nothing is guaranteed in life except death, taxes, and even, hopefully, growing old. So, Class of 2022, I urge you to make the most of your life that is just beginning to unfold before you. Don’t focus on the end result. Focus on the journey. Sometimes it is not the big things that you do that count, rather the simple daily acts of loving kindness you give to all those around you.  

Enjoy your new journey. Age boldly.

Older Americans Month: great time to bring back House Aging Committee

Published in RINewsToday on May 9, 2022

On April 29, President Joe Biden proclaimed the month of May, Older Americans Month for 2022 to honor the nation’s 54.1 million Americans aged 65 and over “who contribute their time and wisdom to make our communities stronger, more informed, and better connected.”

“Older adults have always been a vital source of strength and resilience in America,” stated Biden in the proclamation.  During the pandemic, many seniors came out of retirement to serve their communities in health care and education roles, filling job vacancies in critical shortage areas. Moving forward, we must ensure that older Americans have the appropriate resources to maintain their independence and stay connected to their communities,” he said.

The proclamation also noted that the nation is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Older Americans Act Nutrition Program — the first federal program to support the well-being of older Americans through meal deliveries, nutrition services, educational programs, and counseling. This year is also the 10th anniversary of the nation’s National Plan to Address Alzheimer’s Disease and recommit to building upon this important work being done.

Biden recognizing this month in honor of seniors follows the footsteps of 11 presidents, beginning with President John F. Kennedy in 1963, when only 17 million Americans had reached their 65thbirthday. At that time,  about a third of America’s seniors lived in poverty and there were only a few federal programs to meet their needs. A meeting in April 1963 between Kennedy and the National Council of Senior Citizens led to designating May as “Senior Citizens Month,” later renamed “Older Americans Month.”

Over the years, OAM is a time the nation acknowledges the contributions of past and current older persons to our country, in particular those who defended our country. Communities across the nation pay tribute at ceremonies, events, and fairs, or in other ways to older persons in their communities.  

OAM – a great time to bring back the House Aging Committee

As the nation celebrates OAM, an eblast to over 90,000 seniors by the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) urged these older voters to call their congressmen to request them to cosponsor Rhode Island Congressman David Cicilline’s H. Res. 583, to reestablish the House Select Committee on Aging (HSCoA). “It couldn’t be a better time to highlight the urgent need to reinstate this investigative committee which would help restore Congressional focus on key policy issues [Social Security, Medicare, housing, prescription drugs, and long-term care] impacting the nation’s seniors says the Benefits Watch newsletter.   

“Today, with seniors representing a growing portion of the U.S. population and several federal programs that seniors rely on at an inflection point, there is an increasing need for a House committee that advocates for older Americans,” says NCPSM’s email, noting that’s why the Washington, DC-based advocacy group has signed onto the Leadership Council on Aging Organization’s (LCAO) letter calling on the House to pass H. Res. 583. 

“While there are other committees with jurisdiction over seniors’ programs, there is no single committee dedicated to keeping an eye on the big picture for seniors.  Fortunately, the Senate Special Committee on Aging has continued to operate in the absence of a House counterpart,” notes NCPSSM’s email, noting that “seniors would benefit from a reinstated and robust HSCoA, whose sole mission would be to look out for older American’s needs.

National Aging Groups, former Pepper staffer weighs in

“Older Americans month would be the perfect time to bring back the Aging Committee,” says Bob Weiner, former Chief of Staff under chairman Claude Pepper of the House Select Committee on Aging. “It’s sorely missing now. With Pepper’s legacy as the guide, pandemic deaths, nursing homes, home health care, Social Security, and Medicare would be improved by the sunlight of oversight. Seniors are now vulnerable and threatened by what could happen and having the Aging Committee back would reinstate the wall of protection that Pepper gave them,” he says. 

“The LCAO supports the establishment of HSCoA to provide an important forum for discussion, debate and exploration of issues impacting an aging society,” says Katie Smith Sloan, chair of the Leadership Council of Aging Organizations (LCAO), a coalition of 69 Washington, DC-based aging organizations. “Addressing the needs of older adults and families, which are increasingly prevalent with our population shifts, now, as we celebrate Older Americans Month, is appropriate – and urgent,” says Sloan. LCAO sent a letter to members of Congress on March 4, 2022, urging them to cosponsor H. Res. 583. 

“Passing H Res 583 in May to coincide with it being Older Americans month would make eminent policy and political sense.  It is an investment in having a stronger and dedicated advocacy voice for older adults in the House which has been missing for almost 20 years,” says Robert B. Blancato, National Coordinator of the Elder Justice Coalition, who was the longest serving staff person on the original House Aging Committee, from 1977 to 1993.

“As our country’s older adult population continues to grow each day, so does the urgency with which we need to pursue effective solutions to myriad aging issues,” says Erika Kelly, Chief Membership and Advocacy Officer of Meals on Wheels America. “To see the House pass this resolution to reestablish the HSCoA during Older Americans Month would be a tremendous step forward,” she says.

“Older Americans Act programs, like Meals on Wheels, will undoubtedly face the lingering impact of the pandemic and other challenges for years to come. Having this HSCoA come [back] to life again, especially during this celebratory month, would provide critical leadership and attention when it’s needed most and make a difference in the lives of tens of millions of older adults,” says Kelly.

Finally, Cicilline, H. Res. 583’s sponsor and the NCPSSM tells us why it is important for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her Democratic leadership colleagues to support and bring H. Res. 583 to the House Rules Committee for a vote during Older Americans Month.

“With Older Americans Month upon us, this is an important moment to underscore how the pandemic has disproportionately impacted seniors. Now, with growing concerns about inflation, seniors on fixed incomes will bear the burden of the rising cost of prescription drugs, food, housing, and other essentials. A House Permanent Select Committee on Aging would help Congress focus on, study, and address the issues that affect seniors to make sure they can live the rest of their lives with dignity and security,” says Cicilline.

“When there was a HSCoA before it was abolished in 1995, the investigative House committee held hearings on aspects of the Older Americans Act leading up to the 1992 reauthorization of the law,” noted NCPSSM’s Dan Adcock, Director of Government Relations and Policy. “The findings of these hearings were helpful to the House Committee on Education and Labor which had legislative jurisdiction over the Older Americans Act.  The Subcommittee on Human Resources [now called the Civil Rights and Human Services Subcommittee] under the full Education and Labor Committee held several of its own hearings on the OAA, too – including field hearings held across the country — leading to the enactment of the 1992 reauthorization., he said. 

According to Adcock, during that period of time, there was significant communication between the House Aging Committee staff and the Ed and Labor Committee and Human Resources Subcommittee staff.  But the legislative language was written and marked up by the latter. “A reestablished HSCoA could play a similar role in the future, but the panel’s ability to have an impact on legislation drafted by the authorizing committees would depend on the cooperation between the respective committee chairs and staff and the degree of relevancy of the hearings held by a reconstituted House Aging Committee,” he says. 

Over 400 senior groups support H. Res. 583

While LCAO is a pretty diverse group of national aging organizations – each with their own policy priorities, the coalition of 69 members, representing over 100 million over 50, and 50 million over 65 came together to endorse and affirm their support of Cicilline’s resolution.  

Ms. Nancy Altman, President of Social Security Works and Chair of the Strengthen Social Security Coalition, strongly supports the passage of H. Res. 583 and that her coalition of 350 national and state organizations representing 50 million Americans endorses Rep. Cicilline’s resolution.  

As we celebrate OAM, it is key to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and Whip James Clyburn (D-SC) to join Cicilline along with Congresswomen Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and Doris Matsui (D-CA), cochairs of the Task Force on Aging and Family and 43 cosponsors of H. Res 583, giving the green light to the House Rules committee to vote, and if approved send it quickly to the floor.

H. Res. 583 does not require Senate consideration and only requires a House Rules and floor vote for passage.  Passing the reestablishment of an investigative committee in the House would send a powerful message to older Americans that Congress following in Pepper’s footsteps will again get serious in addressing aging issues. 

As mentioned in previous commentaries, bringing back the HSCoA is a winning federal policy to positive impact America’s seniors and this group.  It’s the  right thing to do especially at a time when seniors have been a disproportionately impacted by the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.    

Over 450 national and state aging organizations representing conservatively over 150 million seniors, support the enactment of H. Res. 583. That’s a great reason for the lower chamber to strongly support.

To see the LCAO’s letter sent to Congress on March 4, 2022, endorsing H. Res. 583, go to https://www.lcao.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/House-Aging-Committee-LCAO-Letter-3-4-22.pdf.

For a historical background of the HSCoA and details about H. Res. 583, go to https://rinewstoday.com/congressman-cicilline-poised-for-legacy-as-next-fiery-advocatsie-on-aging/.

For details about Congressman Claude Pepper (D-FL) Congressman, during his six-year serving as chair of the HSCoA, go to https://rinewstoday.com/congressman-cicilline-poised-for-legacy-as-next-fiery-advocate-on-aging/.

Aging in Place in Your Rhode Island Community

Published in RINewsToday on May 2, 2022

As the graying of the nation’s population continues, older persons are choosing to live out their remaining years remaining in their communities in their homes, whenever possible. A new just-released study of adults age 50 and older from the AP-NORC Center for Public Research and the SCAN Foundation, finds a majority of older persons would like to age in place and are confident they can access needed services that will allow them to stay at home in their community for as long as possible.  

Gathering Thoughts About Aging in Place

According to this new national study released last week, two-thirds of the respondents think their communities meet their needs for accessing services like health care, grocery stores and social opportunities. The researchers found that all types of health care services are widely perceived as easy to access in their communities, and most feel that local health care understand their needs (79%) and take their concerns seriously (79%).

But, a closer examination of the small proportion of older Americans (Blacks and Hispanics) who feel less prepared and less supported in their community raises concerns about equity in access to the resources necessary to age in place.

However, the study reported that a few respondents say they had a hard time accessing needed services because of communication obstacles like a language barrier (11%), cultural barrier (8%) or age gap (8%); issues with affordability (15%); or issues of respect for their religious (4%) or cultural (3%) background. 

Those in urban areas—and suburban areas especially—describe their communities as having more supports for aging in place than those in rural areas. Older adults in suburban areas see their communities as doing the best job with meeting needs for healthy food, internet access, and the kinds of foods they want to eat. Suburban areas are also seen as better than rural areas in particular at meeting needs for health care and social activities. Older rural Americans are less likely than those living elsewhere to use a range of services simply because they aren’t available in their area. They are less likely to feel that community services are easy to get and designed for people their age than those in urban or suburban communities as well. And they are less likely to think a variety of health care services would be easy for them to access.

Income disparities are also associated with access to critical aging services. Those with incomes of $50,000 and below are less likely than those earning more to have access to services that are in their language (73% vs. 82%), close by or easy to get to (58% vs. 65%), respectful of their religious beliefs (57% vs. 65%), or designed for people their age (53% vs. 63%). When it comes to medical services, they are also less likely to have easy access to dental care, physical therapy, pharmacies, nursing homes, and urgent care than those earning more.

Additionally, those age 65 and older generally feel more prepared and report better access to important community services than those ages 50-64.

Aging in Place in the Ocean State 

For older adults aging in place, in their own homes, is by far the preferred model, says Mary Lou Moran, Director, Pawtucket Division of Senior Services at the Leon Mathieu Senior Center. “In fact, the theme of this year’s federal observance of Older Americans Month “Age My Way” focuses specifically on this very topic. The coordination, accessibility, and connection to services and programs is critical to the successful delivery of services and is where much work needs to be done,” she says. 

Moran says that senior centers located in communities throughout the state deliver needed information and assistance to older adults on accessing the needed  services to age in place.  Social isolation, access to transportation, food and housing insecurity, economic stability, and connectivity to services, are obstacles to enabling a person to stay in the community in their homes, adds Moran.

Over the years, Rhode Island’s inadequate Medicaid rates have become major obstacles to allowing a person to stay at home. However, recent state legislation, H 7616, to recreate a Department of Healthy Aging, spearheaded by Reps Carson, Ruggiero, McLaughlin, Contvriend, Speakman, Ajello and Potter, addresses some of the challenges that service providers are facing when trying to assist individuals to age in place. Moran adds, as the number of older adults continues to grow exponentially, the time has come to fully put the needs of our elders in the fore front to enable them to age with choice, dignity and respect.

According to Maureen Maigret, policy consultant and Chair of the Aging in Community Subcommittee of the Long-Term Care Coordinating Council, “Rhode Island is fortunate to have a number of government-funded programs that help older adults to age in place.” These programs include Meals on Wheels home-delivered meals program; Medicaid home and community services including home care, adult day services; assisted living and self-directed programs; Caregiver respite and support services; Home Modification grants to help make homes accessible; and elder transportation assistance for those age 60+ for medical trips, to get to adult day.  She also mentioned the Office of Healthy Aging’s Home Cost Share program for persons age 65+ and persons underage 65 with dementia who are not Medicaid eligible with income up to 250% of the federal poverty level and the wonderful programs offered at the state’s senior centers.

However, Maigret says that for some of these services such as home care there may be wait lists due to worker shortages. (People can find out about these programs or to find out what benefits they may be entitled to by calling the POINT at 401-462-4444).

There are also private services available for almost any service needed to help people age in place if they have the financial means to pay for them,” says Maigret.  

The National Village to Village Movement Comes to Rhode Island

While some of these volunteer programs in RI may offer some type of services such as transportation, a relatively new initiative has come to Rhode Island. “The Village Common of Rhode Island (TVC) provides a variety of supports through the efforts of almost 200 trained and vetted volunteers,” says Maigret. 

Maigret says that the goal of TVC is to help older persons to stay in their own homes and connected and engaged with their community. “This “neighbor helping neighbor” model started 20 years ago in Beacon Hill Boston and now there are 300 nonprofit “villages” operating across the country. TVC supports include transportation, running errands, home visits and telephone assurance, minor home repairs and light yard work, assistance with technology, and a virtual caregiver support program. A robust weekly calendar offers virtual events, and a monthly newsletter keeps members and guests informed. All this is done with a lean 1.5 person staff, a working board of directors and almost 200 volunteers,” she notes. 

“I had heard about the “village” model some years back and supported efforts to start a “village” in Rhode Island, she says. “It amazes me that a small band of committed volunteers were able to put all the pieces in place to operationalize a “village” and to see what has been accomplished. There are now active “villages” in Providence, Barrington, Edgewood/Cranston and Westerly with almost 300 members and more “villages” are under development. One of the priority goals of the Board is to reach out to underserved neighborhoods in our urban and rural areas to listen to people and find out what is important to them and what type of “village” program might work in their area,” she says. 

“We know that transportation is a huge issue for folks living in our rural areas and that is a huge concern. And, based on findings of the 2021 RI Life Index: Older Adults in Rhode Island(from RI Blue Cross Blue Shield//Brown University School of Public Health), we know that older persons of color living in our core cities have lower perceptions of community life, access to healthcare and experience lower food security and access to technology,” adds Maigret.  

“Research on the fairly new “village” programs shows promise in fostering feelings of being connected to others and suggest older women living alone with some disability most likely to experience improved health, mobility and quality of life (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28509628/.),” says Maigret, noting that this is an important finding as Rhode Island has such a high portion of older adults living alone.

TVC President Anne Connor (74) says she has been a member and volunteer since 2015. “That we are volunteer supported is noteworthy and having an Executive Director, Caroline Gangji, (formerly acting Executive Director at Age Friendly RI), improves our ability to serve our members”, says the retired librarian and paralegal.

As TVC founder Cy O’Neil once said, ” …you don’t create a fire house when the house is burning.”  TVC is more than services – it is the relationships we build that are key to our success, says Connor.  

For details about The Village Common Rhode Island, go to https://www.villagecommonri.org/.

For specifics programs and services offered by the Rhode Island Office of Healthy, go to  https://oha.ri.gov/.