In Grand County, the projected population of residents 65 or older is predicted to reach almost 20% by 20201. This is reflective of a global change with people living longer lives and countries experiencing lower birth rates. The population is becoming top heavy. According to the U.S. Census Bureau there are more people over the age of 65 than under the age of 15 in America3. Many people are focusing on the “age drain” problem and view this as a burden on our economic and health care resources, but with some creativity and rethinking, this unique dynamic can provide new opportunities in our communities.
The concept of “productive aging” can be applied readily to small communities like Grand County. Our model of engaged, useful seniors contributing to our community could be replicated on a broader scale to help change the status quo of communities across the globe. Our seniors are our most valued citizens; they offer their experience, expertise, and extra time to contribute as volunteers, employees, stay-at-home grandparents, and care-givers to their friends and family to foster independence and economic vitality for the whole community.
Our volunteer pool mostly comes from this older population, as many adults over 65 can remain active in the community for several years. Without this engaged group of volunteers many of our non-profits would not be able to operate. They serve roles from office workers to fund raisers to drivers and extra hands at events to valued board members. They work with young people in the schools and help other seniors with transportation barriers and small chores. They walk dogs at our shelter, serve as front desk help at our non-profits, and build houses for Habitat. They organize fund raisers, walks, and auctions to help raise the needed money to fund our service organizations.
Many of our seasonal laborers are working seniors that can work flexible schedules and afford the lower wages of entry level jobs. They contribute as bus drivers, mountain hosts, parking attendants, and food servers at the resorts. Often these seasonal positions would remain open without this emerging workforce’s engagement, strong work ethic, and desire to continue to be productive. Other seniors stay working at their chosen careers longer because health wise, they can. These older professionals provide experience and expertise to the younger generations learning the field.
In addition, many of our community’s seniors serve as valuable care-givers. Whether they provide day care for their grandchildren so the parents can work or provide help to their elderly neighbors so they can remain independent, this affords both economic and social advantages for the community.
This population serves our small rural community in countless ways and their impact is immense. As social workers we must encourage this service of others and consider that the older generation’s dignity and worth is only increased by their contributions. Although the demographics will continue to change with the advances in health care and families becoming smaller, there is no need to fear this change. This change provides opportunities for changing the way we look at our valuable older generations and harness their skills to provide for a brighter future for all ages.
1 Colorado Health Institute, www.ColoradoHealthInstitute.org, 303 E. 17th Avenue, Suite 930, Denver, CO 80203. Accessed 1/26/2016.
2 McIntyre, E. (2016, April 2). Aging population will require problem-solving, group says. The Daily Sentinel. Retrieved from http://www.gjsentinel.com
3 Morrow-Howell, N., Gonzales, E., Matz-Costa, C., Greenfield, E. A. (2015). Increasing productive engagement in later life (Grand Challenges for Social Work Initiative Working Paper No. 8). Cleveland, OH: American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare.
4 Morrow-Howell, N., & Wang, Y. (2013). Productive engagement of older adults: Elements of a cross-cultural research agenda. Ageing International, 38(2), 159-170. doi:10.1007/s12126-012-9165-0
5 National Association of Social Workers. (2008). Code of Ethics of the National Association of Social Workers. Retrieved from: https://www.socialworkers.org/pubs/code/code.asp