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.

Aging Report is “Rhode Map” for Change

Published on June 27, 2016 in Pawtucket Times

Next year look for the policy debate in the Rhode Island General Assembly to heat with Governor Dan McKee’s Aging in Community Subcommittee of the Long Term Care Coordinating Council (LTCCC) release of a sixty page report in June documenting the sky rocketing growth of the state’s older population and identifying strategies to allow these individuals to age in place and stay in their communities.

The Aging in Community Subcommittee was mandated by the enactment of the Aging in Community Act of 2014, sponsored by Senate Majority Whip Mary Ellen Goodwin and Representatives Christopher Blazejewski and Eileen Naughton. The Subcommittee, chaired by Maureen Maigret, Vice Chair of the Long Term Care Coordinating Council, and former Director of the Division of Elderly Affairs, staff from Rhode Island College, Brown University and the University of Rhode Island, representatives from state agencies, members of the senior community, and senior service providers.

According to Maigret, it has taken almost 18 months to gather data, host focus groups and to write the “Aging in Community” report. The report provides demographic data snapshot on the state’s older population and also inventories current services and resources. It also identifies challenges faced by older Rhode Islanders and recommends strategies to promote successful aging in community in these nine issue areas.

Maigret believes that this report may take the most comprehensive look at what aging programs and services are available to assist older Rhode Islanders age in place in their communities and it identifies what programs and services are lacking. “The State Plan on Aging does have some data and actions planned but does not comprehensively cover all the domains covered in the “Aging in Community” report,” she says.

A Demographic Snap Shot

In 2010, the report notes that over 152,000 Rhode Islanders were age 65, predicting that this number will sky rocket to 247,000 in 2030. By 2025, Rhode Island will be considered to be a “Super Aging” state where 20 percent of its population will be over age 65. The report noted that two years ago the population of New Shoreham, Little Compton, North Smithfield, North Providence and Tiverton had already reached “Super Aging” status.

The report added that 42 percent of over age 65 household incomes amounted to less than $30,000. Only 49 percent of the retirees have non Social Security retirement income. Fifty two percent of the older renters and 39 percent of the home owners were financially burdened with covering housing costs. Poverty levels for older Rhode Islander vary, from 7 percent in Bristol County to 18 percent in Providence County.

The LTCCC report notes that even with lower incomes older Rhode Islanders have a major impact on the state’s economy. They bring in over $2.9 billion dollars from Social Security pensions and $281 million in taxes into the state’s economy. Older workers account for 33,750 jobs throughout all job sectors.

Rhode Island’s retirees provide an estimated $ 149 million by volunteering and an estimated $ 2 billion in providing caregiving services to family and friends.

A Spotlight on Priority Recommendations

The Subcommittee’s findings were the result of interviews held with aging service providers, an examination of age-friendly best practices in other states and ten focus groups conducted with older Rhode Islander from across the state.

The focus groups attendees gave the Subcommittee valuable information. They stressed that Senior Centers were “highly valued.” Many expressed financial concerns for their current situation and into the future. Attendees were very concerned about the lack of transportation and lack of affordable housing. State customer service employees were viewed by many as “unfriendly.”

Dozens of strategies were listed in the LTCCC report for state policy makers to consider to better assist older Rhode Islanders to successfully age in their community in these nine issue areas: Information and Communication, Community Engagement, Transportation, Economic Security, Food Security and Nutrition, Housing, Supports at Home, Healthcare Access and Open Spaces/Public Buildings

The LTCCC report identifies priority strategies including the restoring of senior center funding based on a population-based formula and continuing RIPTA’s no-fare bus pass program for low income seniors and persons with disabilities. It also calls for increase payments for homecare and for restoring state funding for Elder Respite.

Maigret says that creating a coalition of aging groups to “build an age-friendly Rhode Island” is the next step to take. Businesses can also become “age friendly” and better understand the economic value of older Rhode Islanders bring to the state and its educational institutions, she says.

Political Will Required to Implement LTCCC Report Strategies

There must be a political will to implement the strategies of the LTCCC report, says Maigret, starting with the state’s top elected official. “Governor Raimondo’s proposed budget had added $600,000 in funding for senior centers but the Rhode Island General Assembly removed it,” she said, noting that the decrease in funding got caught up in the negativity surrounding Community Service grants. “We were fortunate the 2017 budget will still have $400,000 in funding for senior centers,” she says.

“Rhode Island’s older adult population contributes a great deal socially, economically, and intellectually to our communities. Ensuring that those Rhode Islanders who desire to age-in-place are able to do so only enriches our society,” said Governor Raimondo. “I’m pleased that Director Fogarty, and members of his senior staff, serve and work with the Long Term Care Coordinating Council and the Subcommittee on Aging in Community. The insight they gain from service with these committees helps to shape State policy and programs related to services for seniors.

“I applaud the members of the Subcommittee for their dedication to creating a clear, comprehensive report on aging that can be a catalyst for change in our state. Their work recognizes that Rhode Island’s older population is growing dramatically and that we must direct public policy to help them remain active and in their homes,” said Lt. Governor McKee. I look forward to supporting the strategies detailed in the Subcommittee’s report to help build stronger, healthier communities for all Rhode Islanders.”

Finally, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, also says that the Subcommittee report’s recommendations will also be studied closely next legislative session. “I will be reviewing the findings of the report in greater detail and I will confer with Representatives Chris Blazejewski and Eileen Naughton, who sponsored and advocated for the Aging in Community Act of 2014. Our older population in Rhode Island is a growing one and it is important that we continue to listen to their needs and be responsive. I commend the work of the subcommittee, as well as all those who participated in the focus groups. I would anticipate that any policy and financial recommendations will be fully analyzed by the members of the General Assembly in the 2017 session.”

The LTCCC’s “Aging in Community” report gives our policy makers a road map in reconfiguring the state’s fragmented aging programs and services. With the Governor, House Speaker and Senate President on board, we might just see legislative changes in the next years that might just be what we need to keep people at home and active in their community. Lawmakers must not act penny-wise and pound foolish when considering legislative fixes.

Both the executive summary and the full Subcommittee “Aging in Community” report are available on the Lieutenant Governor’s website at: http://www.ltgov.ri.gov and the general assembly website at: http://www.rilin.state.ri.us/Pages/Reports.aspx.

Earth: The Gray(ing) Planet

Published in Woonsocket Call on April 17, 2016

Last month, a National Institute of Health funded U.S. Census Bureau report was released announcing that the world’s older population is growing dramatically at an unprecedented rate. According to the newly released federal report, “An Aging World: 2015,” 8.5 percent of people worldwide (617 million) are aged 65 and over. This percentage is projected to jump to nearly 17 percent of the world’s population by 2050 (1.6 billion).

The new 165 page report, released on March 28, 2016, was commissioned by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), part of the National Institutes of Health, and produced by the U.S. Census Bureau.

“Older people are a rapidly growing proportion of the world’s population,” said NIA Director Richard J. Hodes, M.D. “People are living longer, but that does not necessarily mean that they are living healthier. The increase in our aging population presents many opportunities and also several public health challenges that we need to prepare for. NIA has partnered with Census to provide the best possible data so that we can better understand the course and implications of population aging.”

“An Aging World: 2015” is chock full of information about life expectancy, gender balance, health, mortality, disability, health care systems, labor force participation and retirement, pensions and poverty among older people around the world.

“We are seeing population aging in every country in every part of the world,” said John Haaga, Ph.D., acting director of NIA’s Division of Behavioral and Social Research. “Many countries in Europe and Asia are further along in the process, or moving more rapidly, than we are in the United States. Since population aging affects so many aspects of public life—acute and long-term health care needs; pensions, work and retirement; transportation; housing—there is a lot of potential for learning from each other’s experience.”

A Look at Some of the Details

The report noted that America’s 65-and-over population is projected to nearly double over the next three decades, from 48 million to 88 million by 2050. By 2050, global life expectancy at birth is projected to increase by almost eight years, climbing from 68.6 years in 2015 to 76.2 years in 2050.

In addition, the global population of the “oldest old”—people aged 80 and older—is expected to more than triple between 2015 and 2050, growing from 126.5 million to 446.6 million. The oldest old population in some Asian and Latin American countries is predicted to quadruple by 2050.

The researchers say that the graying of the globe is not uniform, “a feature of global population aging is its uneven speed across world regions and development levels.” The older population in developed countries have been aging for decades, some for over a century. “In 2015, 1 in 6 people in the world live in a more developed country, but more than a third of the world population aged 65 and older and over half of the world population aged 85 and older live in these countries. The older population in more developed countries,” says the report.

Meanwhile, the researchers report that in the less developed world, “Asia stands out as the population giant, given both the size of its older population (617.1 million in 2015) and its current share of the world older population (more than half).” By 2050, almost two-thirds of the world’s older people will live in this continent, primarily located in the eastern and northern hemispheres. “Even countries experiencing slower aging will see a large increase in their older populations. Africa, for instance, is projected to still have a young population in 2050 (with those at older ages projected to be less than 7 percent of the total regional population), yet the projected 150.5 million older Africans would be almost quadruple the 40.6 million in 2015, notes the report. .

The Graying of the Ocean State, Too

AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell says that statistics gleamed from a new interactive online tool, the AARP Data Explorer, detailed by blogger Wendy Fox-Grage, a senior strategic policy advisor for AARP Policy Institute, suggests that Rhode Island for some time, has had the highest per capita 85 plus population of any state. But “Data Explorer also shows that Rhode Island was surpassed in 85 plus per capita in 2015 – second now to Florida by 1/10,000th of a percentage point. Interesting, by 1260, we are projected to rank 14th.

“Nationally, from 2010 to 2060, the 85-plus population will more than triple (260 percent), the fastest growth of any age group over that time period,” she says.

Connell says, “AARP Data Explorer clearly shows that the age 65-plus population will grow much faster than younger age groups. All three older age groups (65-74, 75-84 and 85-plus) will more than double between 2010 and 2060, while the younger age groups (0-17, 18-49, 50-64) will increase only slightly.”

“The growth of the age 85-plus population will significantly outpace all other age groups, once Boomers begin turning 85 in the 2030s,” adds Connell, noting that “This phenomenon will have significant impact on every aspect of society, ranging from our health care system to the economy.”

“People age 85-plus are the group most likely to need long-term services and supports (LTSS) to help them with everyday tasks. They not only have higher rates of disability than younger people, but they are also more likely to be living alone, without a spouse or other family member to provide them with assistance,” observes Connell.

Over the years, the Rhode Island General Assembly has enacted legislative changes in the way it delivers and funds aging services and supports for older Rhode Islanders and their family caregivers, says Connell.

According to Connell, early last year, AARP Rhode Island released, “Raising Expectations 2014: A Report Card for Rhode Island Long Term Services and Supports System Performance.” The report assessed the LTSS Scorecard and recommended policy goals.

Connell says that the results revealed that Rhode Island showed strengths. With the subsequent passage of key legislative proposals that included caregiver paid family leave and the CARE Act, the state has moved in the right direction, she says, stressing that “the policy report pointed to areas for improvement that state leaders should not ignore.”

“With the reauthorization of the Older Americans Act through 2019, and continued backing from Governor Raimondo, Rhode Island seniors and caregivers are benefitting from a host of home- and community-based programs,” says Director Charles Fogarty, of Rhode Island’s Division of Elderly Affairs. “A top priority for the agency is strengthening of those services so everyone can make it in Rhode Island. We are proud to partner with hardworking older Rhode Islanders and advocates; we are constantly listening to their suggestions which are helpful in providing direction on development of effective programming and policies,” he says.

Fogarty noted that during Governor Gina Raimondo’s first two budget cycles (FY 2016 enacted and FY 2017 proposed budgets), more than $1 million in additional general revenue funding has been allocated for programs such as Meals on Wheels, senior centers and other home and community care services. Seniors can remain in their homes with a high quality of life for as long as possible through the provision of affordable and accessible home and community-based services and living options preventing or delaying institutionalization.

Connell says a the nation’s population ages, Rhode Island now has an opportunity of showing other states, with growing age 85 plus populations what it takes to care for an aging population.

Rhode Island, too, can also teach the world community a thing or two about providing programs and services to their older citizens.