Civic Engagement-Asa Helps Lead New Approach to Retirement

Article excerpt

I am delighted to announce that the American Society on Aging (ASA) has received a grant from The Atlantic Philanthropies, based in New York City, for a three-year project to infuse the practice of civic engagement into all of ASAs activities. The project is designed to engage ASA and its membership in activities promoting community involvement of older adults through work, volunteerism and lifelong learning.

Although demographic changes and increases in longevity and health have changed the experience of aging in the United States, social institutions and organizations, especially those in health and human services designed to serve elders, have not changed to meet the challenge of retirement today. Although many older adults are experiencing longer periods of healthy and active retirement, the services community in aging primarily remains fixed on the outmoded concept of aging as a period of declining function and withdrawal from social engagement:

UNMET NEEDS

Meanwhile, many of the same organizations serving the health and social service needs of older adults have growing, unmet needs that could be addressed by opening their doors to the social capital represented by a growing, healthy, active elder population. The collective experience and expertise of today's retiree could be tapped to address pressing social needs.

As the largest professional association working in the field of aging, ASA has both the responsibility and the potential to expand awareness of the concepts and the practice of civic engagement with a broad audience of practitioners and researchers, professionals in the field of aging who may not currently be involved in this movement. By raising the level of discussion within the field of aging and presenting best practices for its members to emulate, I believe ASA can greatly expand civic engagement opportunities for older individuals nationwide.

ASA's mission and values mirror the ideas underlying civic engagement, an increasingly popular buzzword in sociology in recent years. What does this phrase really mean? We think that part of ASA's values statement captures the essence of civic engagement in these two points:

* Everyone deserves an old age of personal meaning and social significance;

* Older adults have the right and responsibility to contribute to their own development and to the communities in which they live.

One of ASA's stated goals is to promote a public image of aging that respects the wisdom, dignity, experience and independence of older adults. Our aim in this project would be to magnify the image of older people as a social, economic and spirited force whose potential benefit must be maximized if our aging society is to thrive in the 21st century.

THE NEW PROJECT

Since the emergence of the concepts of civic engagement, ASA has been active in promoting these through our publications and conferences. In 2003 and 2004, our major conference featured pre-conference programs on civic engagement, as well as sessions within our emerging issues track. The 2004 and 2005 conferences also included full-day special programs on the topic. ASA publications have covered the development of the civic engagement movement, and within ASA's membership structure, the Lifetime Education and Renewal Network (LEARN) has a major priority on sharing information for productive aging. This new project offers ASA the opportunity to greatly expand these activities and assure that they are integrated into the strategic directions that ASA is taking.

The ASA board of directors is currently finalizing a new strategic plan for the organization to take us through the next five years. (A subsequent column will outline the major components of this plan.) One major component of that plan will focus on strengths-based approaches to aging. These approaches address the strengths of older people from well to frail-and across abilities-in a number of key areas. …