Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #197. First published in the St. Cloud Times online and in print, December 3, 2023

I’m 84. What should you call me: old — mature — senior citizen — over-the-hill — of a certain age — oldster — elderly — retired — been around? This is the merest sampling of synonyms that show up in an online thesaurus search.

Reflection on the terminology of age is prompted by my learning, in recent weeks, of a project called “Age-Flourishing St. Cloud.” In 2020 Mayor Dave Kleis, supported by the City Council, applied for membership in the AARP’s Network of Age-Friendly Communities, thus joining 18 other cities in Minnesota and more than 750 across the nation; in 2022 Minnesota became the tenth state to enlist in the network.

The mayor’s letter inaugurated a five-year obligation to assess community needs, create and implement an action plan, and evaluate outcomes. A local Age-Friendly Task Force sought community input, and consequently identified five areas of opportunity: advocacy; health and well-being; transportation and mobility; social and community engagement; housing.

But along the way there was a subtle yet profound shift in terminology. The AARP’s “Age-Friendly” was transformed to "Age-Flourishing.” In a conversation with the co-chairs of the task force — Dr. George Schoephoerster, retired physician with a specialty in gerontology (“retired” hardly applies; he is medical director of several nursing homes), and Jennifer Wucherer, AmeriCorps Seniors RSVP Program Director for the City of St. Cloud (herself the mother of three young sons, thus a long way from any of the terms catalogued in the first paragraph above) — I learned of their support for the name change: “Flourishing” involves all ages.

Here is the Task Force’s mission statement: “We support a community in which all people at every age have opportunities to flourish in all dimensions of their lives while elevating the St. Cloud area.” And this isn’t tinkering at the edges: “not just a new program or a new trend in service delivery, but a fundamental rethinking of how we live together. That is, it will require a culture change.” So defined, Age-Friendly becomes Age-Flourishing.

Specific concern for those of us “of a certain age” is clearly warranted. By 2030, one out of every five people in the U.S. will be age 65 and over, which will exceed the number of children under age 18. Here is the starting point for St. Cloud:

“Age-friendly service providers, public officials, community leaders, faith leaders, and businesspeople will:

  • Treat all older adults with dignity.
  • Recognize the great diversity among older people.
  • Promote their inclusion and contribution in all areas of community life.
  • Respect their decisions and lifestyle choices.
  • Anticipate and respond flexibly to aging-related needs and preferences.”

“Aging in place” evolves into the much richer concept of “aging in community” — you can age in community whether you are in your own home or assisted living or a nursing facility. And older folks are just as heterogeneous as any other age cohort — one size does not fit all.

The Task Force has developed a detailed, circumstantial, and evidence-based workplan that is readily available at the website (search “Age-Flourishing St. Cloud”). The plan is grounded in the results of a survey that received 810 responses from residents of St. Cloud and five other cities and the surrounding region. Many ideas, lots of organizations and programs — too much for one column.

Two further things.

First, the locations of the survey respondents trigger a challenge to these cities. In 2025, when St. Cloud will need to recommit to the project for another five years, it will be time for St. Joseph, Waite Park, Sartell, Sauk Rapids, and St. Augusta to sign up. We need to be an Age-Flourishing Region.

Second, last Tuesday I attended an intergenerational conversation at Tech High School about experiences of ageism — five older panelists, three students. Question: What would you want to tell your younger self, or your older self? Dr. Schoephoerster, looking back: “Don’t sweat the small stuff — and it’s all small stuff.” Tech senior Ibrahim C., looking forward: "Do things you like, more than what you’re ‘good at.’” The most memorable moment, answering the question, What have you learned from intergenerational dialogue? was also Ibrahim’s: “Turning 18 and turning 70 create similar anxieties.” Every single one of us is aging!

“Age-Friendly” implies something that the community does for us. “Age-Flourishing” puts us into the equation as well — we are all actors, not just acted-upon, no matter the age. “The Age-Flourishing St. Cloud action plan will be an important step in deliberately including the needs of all ages as we embark on this culture change.” The panel demonstrated the paradox in one of the project’s ways of promoting change — “teaching older adults to be self-advocates.” We who are older improve our own lives in direct proportion to our advocacy for the younger.

What, at 84, would I like to be called? A follower of Paul Wellstone: “We all do better when we all do better.”