In this space, we normally talk about the challenges that seniors face and the solutions we fight for.  But Older Americans Month 2021, with its theme “Communities of Strength,” presents an opportunity to switch emphasis – and talk about the strength of seniors and the contributions they make to communities everywhere.

Seniors have always been a positive force in society, as parents, grandparents, volunteers, mentors, and workers.  The pandemic only strengthened that role, even as it took a heavy toll on seniors themselves.  To that extent, their stepped-up participation in our lives is nothing short of heroic.

Even before the pandemic, grandparents were taking on greater responsibility for raising grandchildren.  According to Kiplinger, the number of children in their grandparents’ care doubled from 1970 to 2010.  In 2019, some 2.5 million grandparents were responsible for raising their grandkids. And those are only the ones who do so ‘officially.’

During the pandemic, working parents lacking sufficient child-care have turned to grandparents to help out with the children.  Grandparents have admirably stepped in to do everything from babysitting to home schooling to preparing meals for the family.

 “Whether students are learning at school or at home, or are not yet school age, more grandparents have jumped into daily caregiver roles. Many are happily working without pay, for the love of family, while others have accepted offers of money from their frazzled, eternally grateful adult children.” – WTTG-TV, Washington, D.C.  

During the height of the pandemic, Bill and Mary Hill of Phoenix, Arizona took care of their 8 year-old grandson five days a week, and supervised his homeschooling, because the child’s parents were required to show up for work in person.

 “At first it was like, we’d love to be a part of this and get to see our grandson more, really get to know him a little better,” Mary said. “At the same time, we were going, `Oh my gosh.’ We knew it would change our lives and it has. It’s much busier.” – Mary Hill, Phoenix, AZ via Fox5 D.C.

There are two-way benefits in these arrangements.  Grandchildren and parents get much-needed extra help – and seniors’ mental and physical health is often strengthened through social stimulation and enhanced activity.

Some of the extra help that seniors provide their families may not have been possible without their earned benefits – Social Security and Medicare.  The basic financial and health security that these programs provide give seniors the flexibility and peace of mind to contribute to their families and communities.

Jeanne Trimble of Northern Virginia told the Wall Street Journal that her Social Security benefits made it possible for her to retire and care for her son’s two young children during the pandemic.

“My son and daughter-in-law were reluctant to put the kids in daycare and were struggling to keep up with their own work schedules.  I’m 64 and was planning to retire in two years but my husband and I consulted with our bank and figured out that with Social Security, I could retire early to help out.” – Jeanne Trimble, Northern Virginia, in the Wall St. Journal

Helping out with grandchildren is only one of the many ways that seniors aid their communities. The Front Royal, VA Royal Examiner published a list of the myriad contributions that older Americans make to society, including:

  • As caregivers for an ailing spouse, with responsibilities ranging from managing household tasks to offering emotional support and providing medical care.
  • As babysitters for their grandchildren, whose parents are productive members of the workforce.
  • As organizers for events hosted by religious groups and other types of community-based organizations, which often struggle to attract younger participants.
  • As donators of time and money to charities, foundations, and non-profit organizations that support members of the community.
  • As mentors for the next generation, passing on family legacies, a lifetime of experience, and a career’s worth of knowledge.
  • As part of a support system for other seniors, such as by planning activities at their seniors’ residence or running errands for someone with reduced mobility.

One specialist in senior services summed it up nicely:

“Seniors are able to devote the required time and effort to see projects through from start to finish.  Seniors realize their needs can be intergenerational and what benefits them will also benefit the rest of society.” – Mickey Balas, Seniors Navigator

Southern California senior Cliff Adcock volunteered for Meals on Wheels

This is what we mean when we say that seniors contribute so much to our lives and communities. The reason we repeat it often is that some in government and the private sector suggest that seniors receive too much help, or can afford to sacrifice some of their hard-earned, already modest benefits for the cause of fiscal austerity.  We say, if anything, Social Security and Medicare must be strengthened and expanded.  As seniors continue to give back so much, we must always look out for them in return.