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Senior advocacy has to be re-invigorated by every generation

October 3, 2012
By Michael Burgess , New York StateWide Senior Action Council

I have often thought about how every great social advancement in our country has come from the advocacy of committed people. Of course, there have always been legislative and congressional leaders who have pushed great causes, but they were almost always responding to a movement of committed citizens seeking change.

The same can said of advocacy work for older Americans. The Townsend Clubs' advocacy for public pensions in California in the 1920s stimulated the push for Social Security. Advocacy by labor and community groups supported Medicare and universal health care. Here in New York state, senior organizations had a broad coalition that won passage of a ban on mandatory retirement and EPIC prescription drug program in the 1980s.

Advocacy has not been focused just on legislative issues. It has been aimed at the quality of life and human dignity of older persons. The inspiration and advocacy of Dr. Bill Thomas along with the Pioneer Movement has literally changed the concept of nursing homes as more and more providers are adopting the "green house" concept of small cottages for residential type living rather than institutional facilities.

Here in the Capital District, Catholic Charities and the Diocese of Albany converted the Vincentian Institute in the late 1970s into senior housing and, through DePaul Management, embarked on the construction of numerous senior housing complexes in the region. Jewish Family Services, along with community partners, developed the first neighborhood NORC (naturally occurring retirement community) in the Capital District in the Whitehall area of Albany. Colonie Senior Services has been a leader with its partnership with the nonprofit group Umbrella to provide home repair and aging-in-place support for seniors in the area, and Community Caregivers was launched to help families remain at home through volunteer and social supports.

Indeed, all of these efforts have been motivated by a vision and inspirational of a better quality of life for our elders. What we have learned as advocates is to translate that vision, that desire for caring into public policy and programmatic reality. Senior organizations and advocates are continuing that process today. It is not always easy. It is often frustrating. Despite all these great examples of success, society and the media too often don't want to talk about aging. They don't want to have that discussion, so the needs of advocacy are even greater.

In fact, the needs are never ending, because even past successes need to be defended as we are finding out now that Medicare and Social Security are under assault, not just in terms of their cost but in a questioning of the concept of social insurance itself. The whole notion of our society embracing health care and retirement security for everyone seemed a given, but now has to be defended against those who question it.

Every generation has to continually refresh and re-invigorate advocacy actions and continue to articulate a vision and social values. That comes from older persons themselves, and we will see even more activism as baby boomers reach retirement age. It also comes from younger people who choose selflessly to devote themselves to the field of aging and gerontology because they too have inherited or gained that "compassion bug" that dreams of a world that respects elders and all persons and treats them with dignity. In fact, these younger professionals will be the advocates in the future who will extend their careers in the field into advocacy working with a new generation of retirees.

When I think of great senior advocates, I like to always recount stories of my friend and mentor Rose Kryzak, who used to get up early in the morning in Queens and take a bus to Albany to advocate for senior causes. She led the fight for EPIC in the 1980s and lived to 99 as an indefatigable force for social change. After her great accomplishments, she received a letter of admiration from Gov. Mario Cuomo which had a quote from Socrates. Not to be outdone by a governor, she responded, saying she preferred Cicero's view that "old age is honored on the condition that it defends itself, maintains its rights, is subservient to no one and to the last breath rules over its own domain."


This piece originally appeared appears in the October issue of Capital Commons Quarterly magazine.



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