The percentage of American philanthropy funding that goes toward aging programs is less than two percent. Grantmakers In Aging wants to remedy that. The organization — which began 35 years ago as an informal collective of foundation program officers who felt older adults’ needs were being neglected — covers a broad range of issues in this space, from healthcare to housing to the arts. They don’t award grants themselves, but they do collaborate with funders, launch major initiatives and provide resources for those who want to learn more about the biggest issues affecting the older U.S. population. We spoke with CEO, Dr. John Feather, PhD, about GIA’s impact and why getting older is more of a blessing than any of us realize.
Q: What do people usually get wrong when it comes to discussing aging in America?
A: The main issue is the sense that aging is somehow different than the rest of life experiences. We tend to think about older adults as “them,” what sociologists call “otherization.” There’s a strong pervasive negative perception of aging, even though it’s an incredible gift to our society that we have so many people living longer.
Q: How important is it to understand social isolation among older adults?
A: Social isolation is a killer. It has a physical impact that’s equivalent to smoking. But it’s hard to break down. I was at a conference in the Adirondacks recently, and someone raised the issue that one of the disruptive transformations right now is Amazon. You can call up and get anything you want tomorrow. The good news is that, in a place that’s mountainous and snows a lot, older people don’t have to go out to get cat food and groceries and all the other things that they need. The downside is that makes it even more likely that they may not get out the whole winter. Another aspect is neighborliness. One of the things that these recent natural disasters have taught is that older people die at a higher rate in natural disasters. And it’s often because people just don’t know that an older person is living in an apartment building where the electricity went out for two weeks and didn’t think to check on them. We need to end the stigma of social isolation, and raise awareness about how damaging it is.
Q: Why should people in non-rural areas pay attention to programs such as the Rural Aging Initiative?
A: Because they are closer than they think. If you look at a map of the federally designated “rural areas” — the official census definition — it’s 95 percent of the United States. If you stand in the middle of the biggest cities, you’re two counties away from a place that’s defined officially as a rural area. Many urban-based foundations just don’t know where to go to try to make a difference in these areas. So a lot of regional philanthropy takes on such responsibilities. One of the reasons why we’re doing this initiative is to get information to funders about what’s available to them, what people have done that they can easily replicate, the results of those programs, and so forth.
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Philanthropy continues to think of aging as something worthy of support, but they don’t see it as a high priority investment as they do programs with children, economic development and other efforts. That should change.
Q: Which healthcare innovations do you think have been most successful so far and where do you see things going?
A: In 100 years, we went from the average length of life being about 40 years to being almost double that now — almost all due to technological changes. But how do we use technology to provide healthcare for everyone in a broader sense? When it comes to things like gene therapy and other innovations, those have tremendous promise, but they’re also going to be tremendously expensive and have risks. We want to make sure to extend life, but also provide quality of life. And that’s the difficulty sometimes when I go to certain conferences and I hear, “We have the miracle cure for X.” Well, OK, so then what?
Q: What are some of the biggest concerns about Medicare and Medicaid?
A: We have set up a situation where the deficit, which has just been enlarged enormously, can now be used as an excuse for hacking away at the basic social services programs. Most people, including some people in our legislatures, think Medicaid is a program for lazy, shiftless poor people who don’t deserve it. But most of the money goes to older people in nursing homes, and to children, and to the working poor. It’s not unreasonable to say there will be very serious ramifications if any of this gets translated to cuts for major programs. But the impact to older people is likely to be one of the most contentious issues in the next year.
Q: How does family care relate to some of the crucial issues when it comes to aging and the economy?
A: The notion that unpaid family caregiving is going to be the solution to our long-term problems has always been fantasy and continues to be. Know that baby boomers are twice as likely never to have been married or to never have had children than the previous generation. So who are we talking about when we say “Our family is going to take care of us?” Who is the person who’s magically going to appear? We have to support those who responsibly provide care for their loved ones. How about this for a start: Let’s have a tax credit for family caregiving.
Q: What do you think are going to be the biggest challenges in 2018 for those concerned with advocacy for older adults?
A: In this environment, holding on to what we have and trying to extend it is going to be critical. We’re in for some very difficult battles this year. There’s no question about that. But here’s the optimistic part: We have so many older people who are living vibrant lives, who are not sick, who are not disabled, who are not all the other things people associate with aging. It allows us to think about living a life that humanity has dreamed about for a long time, but has never been able to achieve. And that’s a remarkable thing.
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