Last week a member of U.S. Senator Susan Collins’ staff called to ask for my help. Senator Collins, who is the ranking member of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, was launching a newsletter focused on the issue of aging. She wanted to be sure to cover the most important and interesting topics in Maine, which has one of the oldest populations of any U.S. state.
My suggestion caught the staffer by surprise. Apparently no one else had proposed a focus on older adults as a community asset. It’s easy to rattle off the litany of issues and challenges elders in our largely rural state deal with every single day: inadequate health care, unreliable transportation, insufficient money to pay for winter heating fuel, expensive prescription drugs, depression, loneliness, and more.
Contrast this endless list with what I also know to be true: Many older adults and other soon-to-be retired sixty-somethings are ready for another career. Many boast an abundance of energy, knowledge, experience, and skills to give back to our communities. Maine’s former Governor, Angus King, is a good example. He won his race for the U.S. Senate for the first time last year at the tender age of 68!
I recently attended the annual American Folk Festival, a three-day celebration of music from around the world held in Bangor, Maine, run by—you guessed it—mostly volunteers. Folk Festival volunteers serve on the board of directors, raise the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed to run the event, handle many of the logistics, and then direct traffic, manage crowds, and collect contributions on fair day.
These men and women stood apart for a couple of reasons. They were the friendliest bunch of people I’ve come across in a long time; they all wore bright yellow t-shirts with the word VOLUNTEER plastered on the back in big letters (dead giveaway); and many made me feel young at the age of 65. These septu- and octogenarians give proof to the adage that older adults are among a community’s most important assets. Maybe it’s time to start spreading the word.
The Maine Community Foundation has spent the last several years engaging older adults as community leaders. Our program, funded primarily by The Atlantic Philanthropies and delivered in partnership with the University of Maine Center on Aging, has helped older adults give back to their communities as volunteers working on issues of smart growth, as citizen reporters, and, most recently, as community organizers in the area of food insecurity. They have built walking and hiking trails, produced videos to promote downtown economic development, and organized community gardens.
As rewarding as these efforts have been, we also know that we in Maine cannot rely solely on future generations for leadership because there simply won’t be enough of them to go around. So, in Maine and across the country, let’s figure out more ways to engage our older adults. They’ve got a lot to give. And we have even more to gain.
Meredith Jones is President & CEO of the Maine Community Foundation, and a participant in the national Community Experience Partnership. At the Council on Foundation’s 2013 Fall Conference for Community Foundations from September 23 – 25, 2013 in San Diego, Meredith and colleagues from throughout the U.S. will be discussing strategies and lessons learned through a six-year community foundation initiative focused on engaging older adults to lead local change.