Older Minnesotans today serve as workers and volunteers in government, our schools, faith communities, civic organizations, the arts, and other places that make our communities vibrant, enjoyable places to live. Older adults already are helping to alleviate a caregiver shortage likely to become more severe in the years to come. Many are not only supporting their own parents but their children, grandchildren and other family members and friends as well.
We now have an opportunity to maximize what each of us can contribute as we, on average, live longer and healthier lives. In just a few years, one-fifth of our population will be age 65 or older. This represents a gold mine of resourcefulness, creativity and experience we must tap for the health of our state.
Standing in the way of these benefits is ageism, discrimination based on prejudices about age. It can be directed at people of any age, but when it’s directed at older people, it often involves the assumptions that older people are less competent than younger people and need someone else to take care of them.
Ageism is largely unconscious. Our exposure to pervasive negative messages about older people and their capabilities leave us with a prejudice we may not even be aware of. The negative effects of this bias, however, can be dramatic.
It can range from workplace discrimination and harassment to social exclusion and neglect to egregious abuse in older adult care settings. Ageism affects the economic security of many older adults who would like to be working.
Stress, depression, and a higher risk of heart disease result when we internalize negative messages about growing older. Conversely, a Yale study showed that positive attitudes about aging could extend one’s life by more than seven years.
Many Minnesotans are ready for change. People participating in community conversations sponsored by our agencies ranked respect and social inclusion high on issues our state should address as we prepare for the year 2030. That is the year baby boomers will begin to turn 85 and one in five Minnesotans will be over the age of 65.
The MN2030 initiative is about building on our successes and nurturing bold ideas to shape our future as we grow older. We want to make Minnesota a great place to grow up and grow old. We want all Minnesotans to be treated with respect, regardless of age.
We’ve learned through these conversations that people of all ages want to be connected and to figure out how to support each other. Older adults have come forward in these discussions with ideas for making that happen and with creativity and energy to solve other community problems.
The same ingenuity that has made Minnesota a national leader supporting older adults can help us see aging differently. We can reframe how we look at older people who, if we think about it, are ultimately the people we all hope to be.
Now is the time to address old views on aging.
Emily Piper is commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Services. Kari Benson is executive director of the Minnesota Board on Aging.
Information provided by the Minnesota Department of Human Services.