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April 30, 2011

From the Office: Understand and celebrate older Americans

John F. Kennedy was the first president to mark a time to recognize the achievements and contributions of older Americans in May 1963. At that time, there were only 17 million Americans 65 years old or older.

About a third of older Americans were living in poverty and there were very few programs to help meet their needs. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter changed Senior Citizens month to Older Americans Month.

Every president since JFK has issued a proclamation either before or during May to ask the nation to pay tribute to older people living in their communities.

It was estimated that there were 38.9 million 65 and older comprising 13 percent of U.S. citizens in July 2008, more than doubling the number in 1963. That number is anticipated to again more than double to 88.5 million by 2050 and account for 20 percent of the total population.

This year's theme is "Older Americans: Connecting the Community," paying homage to the many ways older adults bring inspiration and continuity to our communities. Their shared histories, diversity of experience, wealth of knowledge and work ethic have enriched our culture, economy and local character.

Older Americans are more active in community life than ever before, thanks in part to advances in health care, education, technology and financial security leading to increased vitality and standard of living for many.

Many older Americans step up to help other members of their communities by delivering meals to other seniors, helping with transportation, home repairs, friendly visiting and other activities.

But getting older also has its frustrations.

It is not always as easy to do things as it once was. Hearing, mobility and sight can diminish. Our inability to do things as quickly as we used to, can become a frustration for others as well.

Dear Abby had a letter several weeks ago from a reader who was offended by the way a cashier spoke to an older woman in line in front of her. The letter writer said that the older woman was visibly offended by the cashier calling her sweetie and talking to her as if she were 3. The writer went on to say she had experienced similar situations when her mother was alive and people would talk to the writer asking questions while her mother was standing beside her and perfectly able to answer for herself. Both found this extremely annoying.

My guess is most of us have either experienced or caused frustration when in line and trying to make change or taking a little longer to understand what is being asked of us. How about the store aisle that has someone standing in the middle, unaware of those around them and preventing movement in either direction, or the person who is taking their time going down the aisle. I think we can all acknowledge that it is not always an older person who is involved in these activities, but the next time it is, take a few moments to think about and understand why this may be.

Have you every tried to get your keys out or make change with your heavy winter gloves on? I don't know about you, but I'm quick to take them off to make things go faster. If you have arthritis in your hands, it can be like having those gloves on all the time.

Have you ever had your fingers, wrist or elbow immobilized? If you have, you know how difficult it is to button a button, put your coat on or take it off, or write a check. How about when you've overdone yourself playing a sport or gardening in the spring?

It takes a little longer to get in or out of the car, up or down the stairs or around the corner, doesn't it?

Then there are hearing and vision. My husband wears ear protectors when he uses the snow blower or mows the lawn. I can tell you it gets pretty frustrating when I'm trying to get his attention. How about when you get something on your glasses or better yet misplace them; it certainly makes it more difficult and frustrating to read directions, signs, labels, write a check, anything.

For many of us, these limitations are temporary and limited in nature, but as we age they can become a full time part of life, something to be coped with on a daily basis. Often it is a gradual change and people develop coping skills, but we can all help by having patience and showing respect.

Older adults have been and continue to be valuable members of our families and communities and deserve to be celebrated. Take time to offer a helping hand, listen closely and speak clearly. Help our older family, friends and neighbors to remain active contributing members of our communities. There will be many more of us in the years to come, and we are a resource not to be ignored.

Frances A. Wright is director of the Otsego County Office for the Aging. 'Senior Scene' columns can be found at

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