By Laura Geller and Stuart Himmelfarb
Everything is affected by this pandemic and life is changing around us; everyone is affected – including the “active older adult” population.
The pandemic has made the challenges active older adults face more urgent and a communal response more pressing. All of a sudden, those of us who see ourselves as active older adults, including those who didn’t really think we could actually be getting older, are faced with the fact that we are indeed vulnerable. It is a scary and unsettling time for us and, of course, for many others.
First, the response to the pandemic reveals that stereotypes and ageist attitudes about Boomers and aging persist and, in some ways, have worsened. The trending meme #BoomerRemover reveals a morbid and dismissive attitude among some about Covid-19 deaths of active older adults. What’s more, a widely shared statement by the Lieutenant Governor of Texas, Dan Patrick, struck many as expressing a callous willingness to let older adults die so that the economy could be restarted as soon as possible for the benefit of younger people. As he put it, “…those of us who are 70-plus, we’ll take care of ourselves, but don’t sacrifice the country.”
Second, many of us, especially those living alone, face the additional plague of loneliness, a feeling that has intensified because of the physical distancing we all face. Even in pre-pandemic times, isolation, invisibility and a sense of irrelevance were major fears as we and our peers aged. What’s more, as we navigate a new and challenging life stage between building careers and raising families, and frail old age, definitions and assumptions are changing all around us. We don’t even have the right word to describe this new pre-retirement/non-retirement/quasi-retirement life stage. Even the label “Boomers” doesn’t satisfactorily capture this cohort. “Boomers” technically are those born between 1946 and 1964, but what matters is not chronological age but functional age – how a person functions in daily life and, for us, how they actively connect to Jewish life, or don’t.
Third, some of us are new to the technology that has become so life sustaining during this crisis. Instructional YouTube videos and webinars often intimidate and frustrate this audience and exacerbate the isolation that already exists.
Fourth, the higher vulnerability of those over 60 to the Coronavirus confronts our children with perhaps their first serious encounter with the health challenges their parents and grandparents face. Until now, many Boomers’ efforts to stay and act young delayed the arrival of concerns about health and slowing down. Now, our children worry about us and fear the possibility of carrying the virus to us even if they have no symptoms. At the same time, many adult children have moved back to their parents’ homes, sometimes bringing grandchildren with them. The value and possibilities of intergenerational connections have never been more clear.
The Jewish community, thankfully, responds well to the needs of those older adults who encounter serious health or economic hurdles, but not so well to the needs of active older adults navigating the undefined path that lies ahead of them. Our pre-pandemic experience is that major Jewish organizations and funders, especially on the national level, have ignored Boomers’ emerging needs, choosing to focus heavily on “next gen” younger people. Somehow, resources are just not available when it comes to active older adults looking for new and renewed ways to connect to others and to Jewish life.
Many observers express a sense that this pandemic experience and the disruptions it causes have the potential to change everything – from what we do and where we go to where we work and how we gather, if we gather at all. In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, Thomas Friedman spoke of “investments that I’m certain would make America more resilient, more prosperous, healthier and more equal in the A.C. – After Corona – era.”
Let’s get ahead of the story about how active older adults and others are affected by virus-related disruptions to explore what we’re learning about where Boomers fit in the Jewish community A.C. Maybe we can also explore the new ways we age and what investments are needed to ensure that energetic, expansive aging becomes a shared goal of the Jewish communal conversation.
Here’s the beginning of our evolving agenda:
- Research: to better understand aging today, including new research comparing and contrasting the five adult cohorts (Gen Z, Gen Y/Millennials, Gen X, Boomers and WWII/Greatest generational cohorts) and the impact of the pandemic on them;
- Program innovation and engagement: to imagine opportunities for new engagement, for volunteering, for traveling and learning, and for forming new communities;
- Support: to elicit a commitment to broader and more active targeted engagement from organizations, synagogues, federations and funders – including volunteers and professionals;
- Intergenerational connections: to capture the unprecedented moment in Jewish life of having five cohorts of Jewish adults and to connect these groups in positive ways. This includes new volunteer and learning opportunities to gather different generational groups, united by shared Jewish values, to make the world better and get some hard work done; it also includes programs for grandparents and foster-grandparents, following on the work of the Jewish Grandparents Network , PJ Library, Encore.org’s Gen2Gen, and others, as well as family education projects;
- Mapping: to compile a national inventory of local Boomer and aging-related programs (inasmuch as national groups haven’t placed a priority on Boomers, most innovation occurs locally and is harder to track) to begin the process of sharing successes and failures, and developing best practices;
- Technology: to create initiatives to provide technological guidance to active older adults and build on the wider use of digital tools during the pandemic and beyond, e.g., connecting high school, college and graduate students to older people looking for guidance;
- Collaboration: to organize a national convening of thought leaders and program providers to finally energize a Jewish response to growing older at this time – of course, only when we can be together, safely, in large groups, or even sooner, if we gather virtually.
This is our current A.C. engagement to-do list. There are undoubtedly more ideas and initiatives to share. Please post them in the comments section. Let us know what you think.
This is one way, we hope, that the A.C. era can bring momentous, lasting change … for the good.
Laura Geller is Rabbi Emerita of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, co-founder of ChaiVillageLA, co-founder of the Synagogue Village Network and co-author, with Richard Siegel (z’l), of Getting Good at Getting Older.
Stuart Himmelfarb is co-founder, with David Elcott, of B3: The Jewish Boomer Platform and Senior Fellow – Faith-Based Civic Engagement at NYU’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.