Elder Journal: What You Do Makes a Difference

By Paul Takayanagi
May 2003
Focus on Older American’s Month:  What You Do Makes a Difference

For the fortieth time since 1963, the President of the United States has declared that the month of May will be Older American’s Month.  This month, our nation will celebrate the inspirational lives of 36 million older American citizens and recognize their important contributions throughout the country.

When Older American’s Month was established in 1963, only 17 million living Americans had reached their 65th birthdays, less than half of the number today.  The Older Americans Act had not been passed and there were few social services to serve them.  The interest in older Americans, however, and the concern for their general health and well being was growing at that time.  In April of 1963, President John F. Kennedy met with members of the National Council of Senior Citizens and one of the outcomes was the designation of May as "Senior Citizen’s Month.”  It was 17 years later, in 1980, that President Jimmy Carter changed, what was once called Senior Citizen’s Month, to what is now called "Older American’s Month.”  It may be that a future President will make a further change and designate May as “Elder American’s Month.”

It is significant that every President since John F. Kennedy has issued a formal proclamation around the month of May asking that the entire nation pay tribute in some way to older persons in their communities.  Older American’s Month is celebrated across the country through ceremonies, events, fairs and many other special activities.  This year, Older American’s Month celebrates its 40th anniversary.  The theme for 2003 is “What We Do Makes A Difference.”  The theme not only celebrates the lives and contributions of older people but of their families and caregivers as well.

The individual and collective contributions of our elder Americans are varied and vast.  Most of the time, the contributions that are highlighted in ceremonies during Older American’s Month are “high profile” and ones made by famous elder artists, scientists and politicians.  But the contributions of the “every day” elder American are equally important including those who care for a person with Alzheimer’s Disease and related dementias.   In this month’s column, it’s important that I acknowledge the contributions of persons WITH dementia that can also be significant and worthy of praise and recognition.

A woman, I’ll call Sylvia, was in an Early Stage Support Group that I helped to facilitate in Northern California.  Every week, she, along with eight of her peers, men and women who had also been recently diagnosed with dementia, met to discuss their concerns and socialize together.  Down the hall, a complementary support group for their primary caregivers also met at the same time for that peer group.  Sylvia had worked for thirty years as a social worker for a large hospital in the area.  She had helped hundreds of patients to find social services and in home care upon their release from the hospital.  She had been a compassionate and effective professional caregiver.  She had retired only a year before and was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease three months prior to her starting to attend the support group.   In a short time, Sylvia was able to become a primary member of the group.  Most of group had been members for quite some time and were more advanced in their symptoms.  Sylvia was able to articulate her thoughts, emotions and ideas quite well.  She was most concerned, however, with the welfare of her peers.  She was able to bring her professional compassion and experience to the group and apply her skills personally.

One day, one of the other group members, a man, “Fred,” expressed his concern that his wife was becoming very stressed providing care for him and it was making HIM feel more stressed.  He could articulate that this was a kind of vicious cycle where each of them would become more and more anxious and stressful as time progressed.   Sylvia reached out her hand across the table and said “That is so profound, Fred!  Usually, people only focus on the stress of the caregiver.  They don’t realize that the stress of the person with dementia can be exacerbated by the stress of those around them.”  Fred reached for her hand across the table and stated that he wished his wife would enroll in a “stress management” workshop or seminar and that would help him to be more calm and balanced too!  Sylvia was able to remember that such a seminar was offered at the hospital she had worked at and with assistance, she would provide Fred and his wife with the information to enroll in it.  Even in her retirement and with early stage dementia, Sylvia was acting as a social worker!

The touching moment was when Sylvia and Fred reached across the table and grasped each other’s hands to provide emotional support for what they were experiencing as people with early stage dementia.  As a facilitator of the group, moments like these were priceless because it showed how persons with dementia can help and make a difference in each other’s lives.  That day, Sylvia made a difference in Fred’s life and helped him to find solutions to some of his concerns of the day.  Every day, people with dementia are not only being provided care, many of them are giving care as well.

This month, Older American’s Month 2003, I hope you will remember the many contributions that older Americans with dementia and their many family and professional caregivers across the nation are providing each other and making a positive difference together!

For events focused on Older American’s Month and services for older Americans, contact your local Area Agency on Aging.   For the AAA near you, you can go online to Eldercare Locator at http://www.eldercare.gov or call the toll-free Eldercare Locator service that operates Monday through Friday, 9:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., Eastern time, and can be reached at 1-800-677-1116.

Available from ElderCare Online™             www.ec-online.net             2003 Paul Takayanagi.