Rianda House

The Rianda House senior activity center in downtown St. Helena.

Are you looking forward to aging? I hope the answer is “Yes!” If it wasn’t, are you planning to die young? I hope the answer is “No!” What needs to change so you DO look forward to aging? Sadly, most people living in the United States no longer look forward to what used to be referred to as “The Golden Years.” As our culture has become more and more youth-centric, we are regularly bombarded with negative messages about aging, and encouraged to cling to our youth at whatever cost (Botox or Viagra, anyone?).

At the root of it all is rarely talked about but ever-present: Ageism. One only has to look at a selection of age 50-plus birthday cards with a critical lens to see “jokes” about memory loss. Hearing loss. Vision loss. Aches and pains. We try to laugh about it to stem our fears about what might be ahead. We spend billions every year on healthcare, exercise, and nutrition, but for what purpose, if not to live longer? Why aren’t we celebrating the success of those lifelong efforts, the result of which should be the aforementioned Golden Years?

The interesting thing is that as people get older, they get happier — and not just people who age “well” (with few or no chronic health conditions). By and large, as people age, most of us will find more things to be joyful about. As one dear friend said as she approached 90, “It’s not nearly as bad as I thought it would be. In fact, I’m having fun!”

Key to life satisfaction, at any age, is a sense of meaning and purpose. Ageism gets in the way of that by wrongly assuming that as people age they have less to offer, instead of seeing “Olders” as a vast untapped resource of wisdom, knowledge (institutional and more), and creativity. Many shift their own attitudes as they learn to appreciate the process of aging — and those with a positive bias towards aging live, on average, seven and a half years longer.

While aging in America should be something we look forward to, our current culture is one that both disrespects and excludes older adults. One indicator of this is abuse: nationally, 1 in 9 seniors reported being abused, neglected, or exploited in the past year. Napa County Adult Protective Services (APS) has received over 750 reports of abuse and neglect in the past year, yet only 1 in 5 incidents of abuse is reported (and only 1 in 44 incidents of financial abuse). Sadly, 90% of these abusers are family members, friends, or trusted business associates. They are not random strangers.

June is Elder and Dependent Adult Abuse Awareness Month in California, and I appreciate this opportunity to talk about this hidden crisis and what each of us can do to help. Abuse of vulnerable adults takes many forms and can include physical and psychological abuse, neglect, isolation, abandonment, financial abuse and self-neglect. Financial exploitation and self-neglect are the most prevalent in our community, but APS also investigated over 50 reports of physical abuse and assault in the past year.

Adult Protective Services (APS) is an underutilized resource, in part because of misperceptions. First and foremost, APS is a voluntary program, which means vulnerable adults can choose whether or not they want help. APS has no power or authority to make someone move or do anything they don’t want to do. The goal of APS is to help ensure people are safe and make use of programs and services that will help them remain in their community. APS provides support and services throughout all of Napa County, regardless of income or immigration status. The APS team includes Social Workers, a Mental Health Counselor, and a Public Health Nurse to address a wide variety of issues and concerns.

Although most reports are made by “Mandated Reporters” (primarily people who work with vulnerable adults), anyone who has concerns can call the APS Hotline (707-253-4398 or toll-free 888-619-6913). People can even self-report if they would like a social worker to come visit them and help them access resources.

Staying up on the latest scams can help individuals recognize and prevent abuse. Mark your calendar to attend the no-cost three-part workshop “Intro to Elder Financial Abuse” co-hosted by Rianda House and UpValley Family Center and led by Joleen Cantera, Economic Success Manager of UVFC and Wells Fargo Bank. It is from 10 a.m. to noon, Wednesdays, Aug. 7, Sept. 4 and Oct. 2 at Rianda House, 1475 Main St., St. Helena.

The most powerful way to prevent elder abuse of all kinds is to ensure older adults are involved in a community. When people of all ages are engaged and feel like they are valued and have something to contribute, we are all better off. Confront ageism and don’t ostracize or marginalize “them,” because “they” are your future self. Do your part to foster connections with your neighbors and family members and help support a community of respect and social inclusion for everyone.

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Kris Brown is Deputy Director, Napa County HHSA’s Comprehensive Services for Older Adults, which is one of Rianda House’s local agency partners.