Social equality: Senior rights are civil rights


“Senior rights are civil rights. We’re not just talking about social service accommodations; today’s older Americans want social equality.” The late Dennis Mahar (1952-2016) was always great for quotes, and this was the best one I got from him during research for my master’s degree. And he would know — Mahar spent 35 years in public service, many of them as the executive director of the Area Agency on Aging.

When Mahar passed in 2016, our state lost a passionate advocate for senior rights, and those who had the opportunity to work with him lost a great inspiration who got us to re-think our ideas about aging.

At the time of my interview with him, I approached senior issues as social service needs to be accommodated and managed. Back then, I had a keen interest in developing senior housing, the big splashy kind that looks fabulous in news articles with photos from the grand openings. But the deeper I got into my studies, the more I learned that most senior citizens want to “age in place” in a familiar environment, rather than be up-rooted and moved into a large facility, away from the places they called home for most of their lives.

On a parallel track within my own family, I learned quickly that my elderly parents had zero interest in leaving their home and took a dim view of my good intentions to relocate them to my idea of a better place. Senior housing is not just an accommodation, it’s the home where older people continue to live full lives.

What I learned through interviewing older adults growing older myself, is that aging is about more than services, housing and resources. It’s about respect and support for older adults to choose where they live and what kinds of services they need. All this got me thinking about where I want to live when I get old and what kind of help I want when I’m no longer able to make it on my own.

Apparently I’m not alone in thinking about aging. Of all the generations to enter their so-called “golden years,” my generation of baby boomers is notoriously chatty about it. On one hand, we are quick to share the “oy vey” stories about “managing” our parents lives, sometimes whether they need our help or not. But on the other hand, we are not so forthcoming about how our own children may start to look at us like we are now their problems to be “handled.”

And then there are the issues that are tougher to face, much less talk about. Many older workers are keenly aware of the risk of being squeezed out of the job market because they are over 60. And seniors have fears of outliving their money. Senior poverty and food insecurity are real problems, often hidden from view when older adults become socially isolated. Access to health care appears to be in jeopardy with the pending elimination of the Affordable Care Act.

And on a lighter note, none of us think it’s fair to be pushed to the sidelines of popular culture just because we don’t get Twitter.

Over the next year, I will use this column to explore issues of aging and the rights of older adults. This includes the hot topics of senior housing, health care and inter-generational workplaces. It also includes some of the same issues faced by all generations — how well does the service network embrace the diversity of race, gender identity and sexual orientation among older adults? And the perhaps the largest issue is the pending “age wave” of the coming Baby/Elder Boom, expected to overwhelm existing service networks. Every year there are over 3 million Baby Boomers hitting age 65 and beginning to tap Social Security and Medicare. Given that the future of those programs is at risk under the current presidential administration, aging affects everyone.

As good as Mahar’s quote was, it took years for it to really sink in. Now’s a good time to consider the ways that senior rights are civil rights. We have lots to talk about. Please join in the discussion.

Anna Schlecht is a board member of Senior Services for South Sound and a member of the Olympian Board of Contributors. She can be reached at aschlecht@juno.com