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.

Experts Say Isolation and Loneliness Impacting More Older Americans

Published in Woonsocket Call on April 30, 2017

Sarah Hosseini, a blogger on Scary Mommy, a website bringing entertainment and information to millennial mothers, penned a touching story about Marleen Brooks, a California resident, who came home to find a heartbreaking hand-written note from Wanda, her 90-year-old neighbor, asking her to be friends.

Wanda wrote: “Would you consider to become my friend. I’m 90 years old – live alone. All my friends have passed away. I’m so lonesome and scared. Please I pray for someone.”

According to Hosseini’s blog posting, Brooks shared this note with KTVU News Anchor Frank Somerville, who posted it on his Facebook page. She responded to the posting by saying, “Came home to this note from a lady that lives down the street from me. Makes my heart sad, but on the bright side it looks like I will be getting a new friend.”

That evening Brooks visited her new friend, bearing a gift of cupcakes. After the visit, she wrote to Somerville describing this initial visit (which was posted on his Facebook page), says Hosseini. In this update posting, Brooks observed, “She’s such as sweet lady! And she was over the moon when we came over.” Brooks reported what Wanda said during the impromptu get together: “I hope you didn’t think I was stupid for writing you, but I had to do something. Thank you so much for coming over. I’ve lived here for 50 years and don’t know any of my neighbors.”

Wanda shared with her new acquaintance that she is on oxygen has congestive heart failure, osteoporosis and other age-related ailments, and her two surviving sons do not live by her,” noted Hosseini’s blog posting.

Zeroing in on a Growing Societal Problem

Wanda’s isolation and loneliness is not a rare occurrence. It happens every day throughout the nation. The U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging recently put a spotlight on the growing number of Americans who are socially isolated and lonely, like Wanda, and expert witnesses detailed the negative consequences of this tragic societal problem.

In Room 403 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building, U.S. Senators Susan Collins and Bob Casey, the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Aging Committee, held a morning hearing on April 27, 2017, “Aging Without Community: The Consequences of Isolation and Loneliness.”

he Senate Aging panel hearing (lasting almost two hours), the first in a two-part series, took a close look at the mental and physical health effects of social isolation and loneliness. The next hearing will explore ways to reconnect older people to their communities.

“The consequences of isolation and loneliness are severe: negative health outcomes, higher health care costs, and even death. The root problem is one that we can solve by helping seniors keep connected with communities,” said Senator Collins in her opening statement. “Just as we did when we made a national commitment to cut smoking rates in this country, we should explore approaches to reducing isolation and loneliness. Each has a real impact on the health and well-being of our seniors,” noted the Maine Republican Senator.

Adds, Senator Bob Casey, “Older Americans are vital to the prosperity and well-being of our nation.” The Democratic Senator said, “Our work on the Aging Committee to ensure that we all remain connected to community as we age is important to maintaining that vitality. It is for that reason that we, as a federal government, need to sustain and improve our investments in programs that help seniors stay connected — from Meals on Wheels to rural broadband to transportation services.”

When approached for her thoughts about the Senate Aging panel, Nancy LeaMond, AARP Executive Vice President and Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer said, “We know that social isolation and loneliness has severe negative effects on older Americans and we’re pleased the US Senate Committee on Aging held a hearing on this important issue. As they explore solutions for social isolation and loneliness amongst older Americans, AARP looks forward to working with them on these issues in 2017.”

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse says, “When seniors get involved, the community benefits from their valuable contributions. And the personal connections seniors make engaging in the community can help them stay healthy and productive.” Whitehouse, who sits on the Senate Aging panel, will work to protect funding for senior centers and programs that Rhode Island seniors rely on to stay connected, like Meals on Wheels and Senior Corps.”

Social Isolation is a “Silent Killer”

Speaking before the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging today, social work professor Lenard W. Kaye, DSW, PhD, urged lawmakers to support programs that help older adults stay connected to their communities.

Kaye serves as director of the University of Maine Center on Aging. Joining three other experts, he reported to the committee that social isolation is a “silent killer” — due to placing people at higher risk for a variety of poor health outcomes — and he warned that more Americans are living in isolation than ever before.

“The prevalence may be as high as 43 percent among community dwelling older adults,” Kaye said. “And the risk is high as well for caregivers of older adults given that caregiving can be a very isolating experience.”

Kaye’s testimony also highlighted the state of current research in solving the problem of social isolation among older adults.

“Due to the various life events that can trigger social isolation, from death of a significant other, to loss of transportation to health decline, effective interventions will need to be diverse and they will need to be tailored to the personal circumstances of the isolated individual,” he said.

Kaye added that there is still significant progress to be made in determining what works for helping to reduce social isolation. Lack of rigor in studies of interventions aimed at reducing loneliness can make it difficult to evaluate some of these strategies.

In Pima County, 46 percent of nearly 2,300 seniors surveyed in its 2016 community needs assessment cited social isolation as a significant concern of those living alone, said W. Mark Clark, president of the Pima Council on Aging.

In his testimony, Clark says, “Changes to mobility, cognitive ability or health status can cause an individual to hold back from previously enjoyed social activities. Older adults in rural areas who can no longer driver are at incredible risk of physical and social isolation unless transportation options are available.”

“While aging at home is cited as a top priority by a majority of older people, and doing so has both emotional and economic benefits, aging in place at home can also lead to isolation,” said Clark, noting that connections to the community wane as one gets older due to less opportunities to build new social networks.

In her testimony, Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychology researcher at Brigham Young University, estimated that over 8 million seniors are affected by isolation and social disconnect is increasing.

Holt-Lunstad told the Senators that research shows that social isolation and loneliness is as dangerous as being obese, as risky as smoking up to 15 cigarettes per day. and associated with higher rates of heart disease, a weakened immune system, anxiety, dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease and nursing facility admissions.

Finally, Witness Rick Creech, who was born with cerebral palsy, shared to the Senate Aging panel how disabilities can isolate a person. He described how an alternative communication (AAC) device, costing $10,000, a van concerted for a powered wheel chair passenger and smart home equipment to help him grow a “productive, independent adult.”

Meals on Wheels Program Vital Program for Isolated Seniors

It was clear to Senate Aging panel members and to expert witnesses that local Meals on Wheels programs can bring good nutrition and companionship to older American’s reducing social isolation and loneliness. Over two years ago, a Brown University study confirmed another benefit of visitors regularly knocking on the doors of seniors in need: a significant reduction in their feelings of loneliness.

“This continues to build the body of evidence that home-delivered meals provide more than nutrition and food security,” said study lead author Kali Thomas, assistant professor of health services, policy and practice in the Brown University School of Public Health and a researcher at the Providence Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

Thomas, a former Meal on Wheels volunteer said that the study is one of few to rigorously examine the long-presumed psychological benefits of home-delivered meal service. She believes it is the first randomized, controlled trial to assess the effect on loneliness, which has been linked by many studies to a greater risk for medical problems, health care utilization, and mortality.

“In a time when resources are being further constrained and demand is increasing, it is important that we have evidence that guides decision-making in terms of what services to provide and how best to provide them,” Thomas said.

Senator Susan Collins, chair of the U.S. Select Senate Committee on Aging, sees Meals on Wheels as policy strategy to address the growing number of isolated seniors and their loneliness. At the Senate Aging panel, Collins said, “For many, Meals on Wheels is not just about food – it’s about social sustenance, also. Seniors look forward to greeting the driver with a bit of conversation.” And the Republican Senator called for adequate funding to the nationwide Meals on Wheels network, comprising 5,000 local community-based programs. President Trump’s proposed cuts to Meals on Wheels were, “pennywise and pound foolish because in the end they’re going to cause more hospitalizations, more nursing home admissions, and poor health outcomes.”

Like Brooks, we should reach out to our older isolated neighbors in our community. A simple gesture like this can have a lasting, positive impact on both parties.

Trump Budget Proposal Makes Draconian Cuts to Aging Programs

Published in Woonsocket Call on March 19, 2017

Since his inauguration, GOP President Trump/s controversial and surprising Cabinet picks, some who have even called for the elimination of federal agencies that they were appointed to oversee, has sent a chilling message to the nation. That is business as usual is over inside the Washington Beltway, especially as to how federal dollars will be spent. The release of Trump’s first budget proposal, for fiscal year 2018, reveals draconian cuts throughout the federal government, this causing alarm among aging advocacy groups.

Trump Slashes Funding for Aging Programs and Services

James Firman, President and CEO, of the Washington, D.C.-based National Council on Aging (NCOA), notes Trump’s 62 page $.15 trillion budget proposal to remake the nation’s federal agencies and the programs they provide eliminates the Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP), which provides job training and placement for adults 55 and over who have limited incomes and are trying to make ends meet. “Last year under SCSEP, 70,000 older adults received on-the-job training while providing nearly 36 million hours of staff support to 30,000 organizations, he says, noting that the value of this work exceeded $800 million, or nearly twice the program’s appropriations.

Trump’s budget proposal also zeros out the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which provides assistance to low-income households to meet the costs of electricity, heating, and cooling, says Firman, noting that about a third of the nearly 7 million households receiving LIHEAP benefits include an older adult aged 60 or older.

Finally, Trump’s budget proposal eliminates the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), which funds volunteer programs that serve distressed communities and vulnerable population, says Firman, noting that three Senior Corps programs (the Foster Grandparent Program, Senior Companion Program, and Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP), will lose funding. “Together, these programs provide the nation with approximately 96 million hours of service, with a value of $2.1 billion,” he says.

“While the President’s budget blueprint does not cut Social Security Administration (SSA) funding (unlike the drastic reductions in non-defense discretionary spending), the 0.2% increase for SSA does little to solve serious customer service deficiencies for Social Security beneficiaries,” says Max Richtman, President and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM). “Seven years ago, the SSA’s budget was cut by 10% (after adjusting for inflation), just as waves of Baby Boomers were beginning to retire and place a strain on the agency’s resources,” he says.

Richtman noted that while the numbers of Social Security beneficiaries were increasing, SSA was forced to implement a hiring freeze in 2016 and was not able pay its workers overtime. As a result, hold times on the SSA toll-free customer service number are now an average 15 minutes, more than 60 SSA field offices around the country have been shuttered, and the average wait time for a disability hearing has climbed up to 590 days.

Richtman points out that one million people are awaiting their scheduled disability hearing. “The disability case backlog and customer service will only get worse under the flat operating budget proposed by the President. To make up for previous cuts and restore vital services, the National Committee supports a 7% increase in the SSA’s operating budget,” he says.

NCPSSM’s Richtman warns that Trump’s “skinny budget” may keep millions of vulnerable seniors from participating in the Meals on Wheels program. As Meals on Wheels America has pointed out, Trump’s budget blueprint eliminates the U.S. Department of Human Development’s (HUD) Community Services Block Grant and Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), on which some local Meals on Wheels programs rely on to deliver nutritious meals, safety checks, and friendly visits to seniors who need these services. (The President’s budget blueprint does not mention the Older Americans Act, which provides 35 percent of Meals on Wheels funding nationally.)

Richtman calls on President Trump to ride along with a Meals on Wheels delivery van and see for himself how seniors thrive on the meals they receive and the much-needed human interaction that comes with the food. “Maybe then he would move to protect – rather than cut – this vital program for our nation’s seniors,” he says.

Budget Proposal Puts Food Delivery Program on Budgetary Chopping Block

Trump’s elimination of HUD’s CDBG program in his proposed budget proposal will drastically impact many Meals on Wheels programs across the nation, but, fortunately Meals on Wheels of RI (MOWRI) will not be hit as hard, says Heather Amaral, executive director of Meals on Wheels of RI. But, Rhode Island’s only non-profit home-delivered meal program, will be indirectly impacted by Trumps CDBG cuts, she worries, noting that other programs that support her work receive these HUD funds, specifically, community centers that house our Capital City Café sites or local drop-off sites for the Home Delivered program. The Senior Community Service Employment Program that provides staff for several of our Café sites is also slated for elimination in President Trump’s “Skinny Budget.”

Amaral also is concerned about Trump cutting the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ budget by 18 percent. “Our Older Americans Act Title III funding flows through this department. It is safe to assume that this significant cut will result in a reduction of our funding—funding that has remained at stagnant for over 10 years,” she says.

“It is impossible to predict any service cuts until a final federal budget is approved and any cuts to MOWRI are known. Any funding reductions will have a negative impact on her nonprofit agency’s ability to keep up with the increased demand of Rhode Island’s growing senior population,” says Amaral.

“Our programs directly address issues that are critical to Rhode Island’s vulnerable homebound seniors,” she says, noting that last year, MOWRI delivered 345,262 meals to over 2,560 homebound residents.

Last Thursday, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney defended the Trump budget proposal cuts to the widely popular Meals on Wheels program. He told reporters that the program “sounds great” but is “not showing any results.”

Amaral counters by saying that research is providing the tremendous benefits of participating in the meals and wheels program — for seniors, homebound, family members, municipalities and the Rhode Island

The Brown University “More than a Meal” Report (published 2015), a randomized, controlled study of Meals on Wheels Programs across the country, reported that those who received daily-delivered meals experienced the greatest improvements in health and quality of life indicators,” says Amaral. The most vulnerable of our recipients, those who live alone, were more likely to report decreases in worry about being able to remain in home and improvements in feelings of isolation and loneliness, she noted.

Meanwhile, a U.S. Administration on Aging (AoA) Study, published in September 2105, found that those receiving daily-delivered meals are more likely to report improvements in mental and physical health, reductions in feelings of isolation and anxiety about being able to remain at home, and lower rates of hospitalization and falls, adds Amaral.

“In that same report, AoA statistics show that a home delivered meal program can deliver a year’s worth of meals to a senior for the same cost as one day in the hospital, or one week in a nursing home, notes Amaral.

Speaking at the Hubert Humphrey Building dedication in Washington, D.C. on November 1, 1977, former U.S. Vice President (1965-69) Hubert Humphrey stated “the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy and the handicapped.” A quick read of the Trump’s budget proposal revealing huge cuts for domestic programs, it’s clear to many that his Administration has failed it’s test.

If you want to learn more about MOWRI, sign up for meals, volunteer or donate, please visit http://www.rimeals.org or call 401-351-6700.