Paula Marie Usrey
Before I retired from teaching at UCC, I’d hear some of my students making jokes or complaining about all the ‘elderly’ people on the roads, in the stores, and near their neighborhoods. These students were becoming aware of a reality that they didn’t quite know how to process. The reality is this: In spite of our cultural emphasis on youth, our population is getting older.
According to the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis, the fastest growing age group in the state is projected to be those 70 and older—at least for the next ten years. In Douglas County, we see evidence of this trend.
In 2017, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that nearly 47% of our county’s population was at least 50 years old, and over 32% were 60 or older. Only 19.5% were 18 or younger. The median age in Douglas County was 47.2 years (compared to 39.1 for Oregon overall).
What’s driving this demographic shift? In general, many of us are living longer, healthier lives. Also, younger people have fewer children than in the past. Further, our county may look pretty attractive to retirees moving in from other areas.
To appreciate both the challenges and opportunities that an aging population represents, it is essential to recognize older adults are a diverse group. Yes, it is true that an aging population means more people may need additional support including social, medical, and financial help. However, to assume that aging automatically means a person is no longer capable of contributing to society is no longer interested in learning new information, or is ‘out-of-touch’ is a gross stereotype referred to as ‘ageism.’
If anything, it will be ageism that prevents us from embracing the opportunities an aging community offers. For example, Joseph Coughlin, Director and Founder of the MIT AgeLab noted in his 2017 book, The Longevity Economy, that those 50+ control 83% of household wealth in this country. Yet, some current research suggests that only a fraction of our marketing is directed towards the interests and needs of older adults. (I’m not talking about age-related marketing such as bladder control products, etc.). Older adults in our community may represent an economic opportunity if local businesses provide the experiences, products, and services of interest to us.
The Milken Institute reports that nearly 25% of Americans over 55 are volunteering in their communities; this generates around 77 billion dollars in economic value each year. If given the opportunity, older adults can add important social and economic value that we don’t always recognize.
Because we are living longer than ever before, many of us are interested in opportunities to explore new lives, re-invent ourselves, start new businesses, or start new careers. For instance, a growing number of adults over 50 are returning to school to prepare for new careers. One national program that supports new career programs for the 50+ learner is called The Plus Fifty Initiative, a project of the American Association of Community Colleges. Portland Community College has one such program in the field of gerontology. We certainly have the population in Douglas County for similar programs.
Fortunately, we also have new leaders in Douglas County who are recognizing the value of working together across generations. One such leader is Aaron Larsen. Aaron started GrandparentsAcademy.com in 2011 while living with his “Granny Grit.” Aaron says this website “helps grandparents grow meaningful relationships and rich legacies with their loved ones. The site currently has over 80,000 followers. Aaron is also working with Encore.org and with their Gen2Gen campaign (www.iamgen2gen.org) “to help mobilize 1 million adults 50+ to stand up for and with young people.”
Kemberly Todd, from the Umpqua Small Business Development Center (Umpqua SBDC), is also a Gen2Gen champion. She brought together a group of elders with younger people to participate in a ‘wonder doors’ activity. This was a grant given by Gen2Gen for activities involving multiple generations and a continuation from Kem’s TEDx Talk, The Wonder Doors. Kemberly has also talked about plans for a possible Umpqua SBDC entrepreneurship class for those 50 or over.
Aaron Larsen mentioned another age-bridging champion: Pastor Jon Nutter of Hucrest Community Church of God has hosted a ‘Movies and Mentors’ night to bring generations together so they could discuss the importance of mentoring across generations.
All of us in Douglas County have a new opportunity to see ourselves in new ways. We’ll all benefit if we embrace the opportunity in front of us.
Aaron Larsen expressed it best when he said, “Along with the beautiful forest and rivers of green, we have an army of grey with hearts of gold. That’s what makes this place so special.”