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A Different Kind of Older Americans Month

Older Americans Month is a national observance that encourages seniors and communities to come together each May. It provides an opportunity for engagement by building awareness of the many contributions of older adults, and offering ways to keep them involved and connected. So what do we do in an age of social isolation that puts older Americans at higher risk?

We were excited to get started on the 2020 theme for Older Americans Month when Administration for Community Living (ACL) returned with their decision from the options offered. “Make Your Mark” provided a wealth of creative opportunities for both seniors and their networks. Resources for employment, independent living, community involvement, and education were under development just as news of the Corona Virus outbreak began to make news. Then, everything changed very quickly.

In the months that followed, the news was grim. It became clear that seniors were at a higher risk from contracting COVID-19 and dying from the disease. Encouraging them to physically connect with others was out of the question during the pandemic, but we know that social isolation among seniors presents its own dangers. It can lead to depression and physical decline, which is why engagement has alway been a priority for Older Americans Month. The challenge became how to encourage seniors to stay engaged while keeping a safe distance. Can seniors contribute to their communities while remaining physically disconnected? What does that look like for those who need support from others to continue to live independently? It was going to be a different kind of observance than we first imagined. 

ACL’s dedication to older Americans shifted, but never wavered.

For seniors, this meant a larger push on digital communications to help them combat the risks of being socially isolated. It offered ways to stay connected to family and friends through video chats, opportunities for online enrichment to keep them stimulated, and community resources to help them stay engaged. Those who needed stronger supports were referred to services to help them stay safer at home. Story sharing became more important than ever, and communities across the nation developed a renewed interest in the lives seniors lived and the wisdom they had to share.

To support aging networks in the new reality, ACL worked tirelessly to disseminate CDC recommendations for keeping at risk communities safe from infection. Reopening guidelines and best practices guided medical and support services. Food insecurity programs shifted from congregate to meal delivery for at-risk populations. Assistive Technology programs reallocated funds to help networks stay safe while connecting seniors to the resources they need. “Make Your Mark” meant a more proactive approach to reaching older adults and providing resources to help them stay safe in a strange new world.

At the end of last year’s observance, we were really excited to get started on the next. Older Americans Month 2019 was one of the most successful ever and we had great plans to build on its success. No one envisioned how Older Americans Month 2020 would take such a different turn. But we were able to shift quickly toward a determined approach to keep seniors safely connected during a socially-distanced national imperative. We sincerely hope that Older Americans Month 2021 will look a bit more like prior observances, but will be prepared to help ACL guide seniors and aging networks through whatever reality we are all facing.

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