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I recently came upon the following quote – ubiquitously posted on the Internet – by Doc Searls, 65, a columnist and open-source advocate. Searls made this comment after hearing about the devastating and untimely death of Aaron Swartz, the young information activist and tech genius whom Searls met when Swartz was a teenager. He referred to Swartz and himself as “generational bookends.” The following quote from Searls resonated for me as to why I now am actively working to encourage younger people to join the elder justice movement.
“When we’re young we think our cause is a sprint, and when we’re middle-aged we think it’s a marathon,” Searls said. “But when we’re old we think it’s a relay race. And Aaron was the one you wanted to hand it off to.”
The Elder Justice Relay Race
I started working for elder justice in the early 80s, over 30 years ago. At that time, when I was in my mid-20s, I naively thought the elder justice cause was a sprint, that as soon as key decision makers heard about elder abuse, they’d surely actively seek ways to prevent it and provide for the victims. As years passed and scarce government resources trickled down for elder justice, I understood that change would not happen quickly or easily.
Elder abuse, neglect and exploitation, already an epidemic, will continue to grow until our country puts significant resources into its prevention. And we need to build a robust and informed elder justice workforce to respond to the broad range of urgent needs victims require after abuse has occurred, including health and mental health care, legal assistance, protective services, financial management, shelter, police protection, and more.
To do this, the elder justice movement must encourage people to join the ranks in significant numbers – and we need folks of all ages in our relay race so the baton can be passed on and the work can continue. One important group of potential relay racers and baton carriers we have not tapped are undergraduate students.
In order to pass the baton to undergraduates, we need to engage them in conversation about the value of older adults so they will want to actively care about their welfare. We then need to discuss the complexities of elder abuse, help foster a sense of belonging to a movement, and provide a structure for them to take action.
Actively Building the Base by Countering Ageism: The Risk and Resiliency Internship Project
The NYC Elder Abuse Center (NYCEAC) is working on ways to expand the elder justice base, to encourage more undergraduate relay racers to join the run and carry the baton. And this is how we are doing it:
1) NYCEAC, in partnership with Dr. Karl Pillemer’s Legacy Project, piloted the Risk and Resiliency Internship Project in the summer 2012. This is a novel internship program for undergraduate students that aims to counter ageism. It is difficult for people to care about the protection of older adults if older adults are under-valued.
The Risk and Resiliency Internship Project counters ageism through a thoughtfully designed curriculum that encourages college students to appreciate the value of older adults and care about them so they’ll understand the importance of protecting them – while also teaching about elder abuse, neglect and exploitation. It is a highly participatory internship, requiring students to actively engage in conversations with older adults by using The Legacy Project’s structured interview that Dr. Pillemer used for his top-selling book, 30 Lessons for Living. The interns also engage in meaningful elder justice activities, e.g, attending multidisciplinary team meetings, blogging, website maintenance, and helping maintain social media platforms, conducting presentations to peers.
2) By early Spring 2013, NYCEAC and The Legacy Project will launch a section on NYCEAC’s website devoted to countering ageism and describing more fully the Risk and Resiliency Internship Project – including information on the internship’s eligibility requirements and how to apply. The countering ageism section will offer videos, music, sage advice from older adults, and more – with a laser focus on countering ageism. So please check back and look for it!
In the meantime, we want to hear from you! Please share your ideas for countering ageism and growing the number of people running the elder justice relay race – just use the comment box below. Thank you!
by Risa Breckman, Executive Director, NYC Elder Abuse Center