In 1968, a piece appeared in the Reader’s Digest introducing the phrase “Getting old ain’t for sissies,” bringing humor to an aging population’s aching joints and hardening arteries. Later, comedian Betty White refined it to “Old age is not for sissies.” Either way you say it, it’s true. Minor injuries sustained while young often give way to painful arthritis in middle age, and eventually to joint replacements during our golden decades. Years of comforting ourselves with pints of Häagen-Dazs ice cream probably doesn’t help our arteries either.
The unavoidable truth is, the older we get, the more at risk we become of experiencing negative health events. Our bodies are less resilient, not adapting well to metabolic stressors. We’re threatened by our individual genetics, a range of external influences, and the idiomatic roll of the dice. Regardless of when we hit that first bump in the road, inevitably we will. How we land — whether on our feet or down for the count — is dependent on many variables. This is one of the reasons that President Lyndon Johnson signed the Older Americans Act (OAA) into law in 1965, to soften the landing. Since then, the OAA has preserved the dignity of older adults, helping them to live independently by providing them with a continuum of services.
It created agencies to administer programs so that the senior citizens of our country would be able to remain within their homes and communities for as long as safely possible. It established 56 state agencies on aging and 618 regional agencies, which began providing nutrition services such as Meals on Wheels, in-home assistance, legal services, transportation, caregiver support, employment opportunities, and protection of the most vulnerable. We experience the benefits of the OAA right here on the Island through the valuable work of Elder Services of the Cape and Islands, which aligns itself closely with the Councils on Aging (COAs) to provide older adults with a full package of services.
Since 1950, the nonprofit National Council on Aging (NCOA; ncoa.org) has advocated for the needs of older adults by pressuring legislators to pass the Older Americans Act, securing Medicare and Medicaid and helping to end mandatory retirement. The Vineyard has four COAs, sometimes referred to as senior centers: Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, Tisbury and Up-Island COA. Our local COAs were founded under the guiding principles of the NCOA, and are supported by the Massachusetts Councils on Aging (MCOA), the state’s nonprofit trade organization for COAs. These organizations, with the financial support of our towns, help organize and provide the resources and support needed to deal with the hardships that many older adults face, remaining steadfast in their commitment to promote equity, dignity, and justice for our aging population.
From the time the first senior center opened almost 80 years ago in the Bronx, N.Y., more than 10,000 have arisen across the country, serving more than a million older adults each day. They are a gateway through which those over the age of 55 and their families can access a wide range of programs and services to enhance their lives during the good times and to provide critical support if life becomes tough. Our Island COAs offer a broad array of programs, and partner with outside agencies, introducing their clientele to opportunities that will help them remain active, improve or maintain their health, learn new skills, find assistance in everything from tax preparation to tech support, and kindle new friendships. Each COA is unique and tailored to the specific needs of the community in which it resides. A recent survey of Vineyarders over the age of 60 revealed that 50 percent of full-time residents use our COAs in some way.
With the advent of May comes Older Americans Month. The theme for 2023 is “Aging unbound,” reminding us that everyone, regardless of how young we are, is on a personal journey through the complexities of getting older. Being “unbound” is to free ourselves of misconceptions of aging. We can release our older neighbors and ourselves from the stereotype of aging as decline. We can embrace traditions like those of Native Americans, who honor the experience and wisdom acquired with age. We can recognize the value of intergenerational families and communities. By working together as a community, volunteering as individuals and seeking our resources when we need them, aging can be a time of growth and joy, not of limitations and loss.
Edgartown Council on Aging: edgartowncoa.com, 508-627-4368
Oak Bluffs Council on Aging: oakbluffsma.gov/152/Council-on-Aging, 508-693-4509
Tisbury Council on Aging: tisburyma.gov/council-aging, 508-693-0887
Up-Island Council on Aging: westtisbury-ma.gov/council-aging, 508-693-2896
Elder Services of the Cape and Islands: escci.org, 508-394-4630
Healthy Aging M.V.: hamv.org, 508-693-7900, ext. 455
M.V. Center for Living: mvcenter4living.org, 508-939-9440