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Guest Opinion | Akila Gibbs: It’s Time to Bust Stereotypes About Growing Older

Published on Wednesday, May 15, 2024 | 5:20 am

What does it mean in our culture to be “older” or “aging”?

The definition has certainly evolved over the past few decades. Disappearing are the misperceptions and myths that growing older is filled with physical, cognitive and even financial health declines. 

The fact is that older adults today want to be engaged, enriched and empowered, improve or maintain their health, enjoy active lifestyles and social interaction, take classes relevant to today’s world, access resources for social services and so much more.

As we celebrate May as Older Americans Month, I’d like to remind everyone to continue challenging old and tired narratives about what it means to age. At the Pasadena Senior Center, we are reversing outdated stereotypes of sedentary lifestyles, mounting limitations and fading strength. We are focusing instead on the reality that growing older is a blessing (think of the alternative, after all!).

Now, more than ever, older adults are living active, engaged lives well into their 80s, 90s and beyond. 

High-profile personalities such as singer Diana Ross, who performed concert tours in three countries at the age of 80, and environmentalist Jane Goodall, who champions planetary activism at 90, inspire us with their intellectual curiosity and creative passion. Steve Lopez’s narrative on aging and retirement, as depicted in his Los Angeles Times column and his book “Independence Day,” promotes the fact that aging can defy stereotypes.

It’s not only celebrities who are reshaping the narrative. The everyday actions of older adults embody vitality and relevance, including volunteering, caring for loved ones, lifelong learning, environmental advocacy and staying in the workforce well beyond the traditional retirement age of 65. Pasadena Senior Center members and older adults nationwide are actively revitalizing communities and reshaping perceptions of aging. 

As Baby Boomers and Gen Xers continue to age, senior centers – whether they are run by government entities or are independent nonprofits – are more important than ever. They provide essential support and connection in areas where social isolation and poverty affect many older adults, even in the greater Pasadena area where the Pasadena Senior Center has provided essential programs, activities and services for close to 65 years as an independent nonprofit that receives no government funding. 

Gen Xers began turning 50 in 2015 and now are joining Baby Boomers on the older-adults landscape. These two population groups have one thing in common: They want to enjoy long, healthy and fulfilling lives.

Research shows that older adults who participate in programs and activities at senior centers experience measurable improvements in physical, mental and social well-being, which help delay and manage the onset of chronic diseases. From courses in exploring genealogy to meditation as well as training for the upcoming Pasadena Senior Games, we cater to the various needs of our socio- and economically-diverse community, fostering connection, resilience and strength.

Consider these statistics: The combination of Baby Boomers, who comprise 66 percent of the American population, and GenXers, who will begin turning 60 in 2025, represents the largest number of older adults in our nation’s history. Every day for the next two decades, 10,000 Americans will turn 65. Here in Pasadena, where the aging population outpaces that of the rest of Los Angeles County, 16 percent of older adults live below the federal poverty line and even more live alone and struggle with social isolation. 

Amid these challenges, there’s reason for optimism. Most older adults will be lucky enough to age with dignity. Technology enables us to stay closely connected with our loved ones and friends. Modern medicine, coupled with an active lifestyle, extends lifespans. At the same time, senior centers such as ours serve as living, evolving lifelines, continuously reinventing themselves, offering essential services and building healthy and enduring communities.

By embracing the essence of aging and challenging stereotypes, older adults will continue to thrive and stay safe, active and healthy while contributing to society in meaningful ways. 

Akila Gibbs is the executive director at the Pasadena Senior Center.

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