Community matters: Grand Rapidians age without fear

If we’re being honest with ourselves, most of us view aging through the lens of fear. But while most standardized systems of care have made minimal progress towards improving the quality of life for older Americans, some individuals and organizations here in Grand Rapids are finding ways to hack their way to a higher standard of aged living.
How do we, in our community, view aging? If we’re being honest with ourselves, most often it’s through the lens of fear. Fear of losing agency of our bodies, minds, and autonomy as individuals. Fear of being cut off and disconnected from our families, our communities, our work. These are fears faced by more and more Americans as the US aging population grows, and while most standardized systems of care have made minimal progress towards improving the quality of life for older Americans, some individuals and organizations here in Grand Rapids are finding ways to hack their way to a higher standard of aged living.

Breaking the stigma

Ginger Valentine, a local high school teacher who also teaches “Golden Yoga” classes at AM Yoga, is keenly aware of this stigma as she enters the dreaded “older” demographic.

“It’s sad that in our society, getting old is the worst thing that can happen to you. People really fear aging,” she says. Facing that fear head on was part of what led Valentine to begin practicing yoga over 10 years ago, as she began to look for a more sustainable—i.e., low impact—way to stay active.

“The first time I did a flip, I was 53,” she says. “Little by little I’ve grown stronger, and more flexible, which is kind of the opposite direction from how most people go.” Breaking that initial barrier isn’t easy when you’re starting out in your 60s, 70s, 80s, or even 90s—or when you have other less-than-standard physical requirements, which is what Valentine and the owners of AM Yoga are working to eliminate in Golden Yoga classes. Valentine has taught students as mature as their mid 90s.

Ginger Valentine doing a yoga pose from her classes.

“Some of those 94 year-olds were doing chair yoga, but it was accessible, and they felt really good after practicing…The key is creating an environment where people who are older, who are feeling out of shape, or just not strong—where they feel welcome, and that they can be successful,” Valentine says.

And Valentine's lessons know no age boundaries. She also teaches leads her high school students through sun salutations each morning, instilling lessons that she hopes they will remember for decades.

It’s not just Golden Yoga classes that have grown in popularity; local fitness center Gymco recently opened a “gentle gymnastics” class targeted towards Boomers who want to stay active. Meanwhile, national employment trends indicate our aging population is inclined to remain more active later in life. Workers aged 55+ have increased from 11.6 percent of the workforce in 1993 to 22.4 percent of the workforce in 2016, which the US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects will rise.

Yet, like finding an accessible way to remain active, finding employment in the 55+ age bracket can be tough.

Jim TalenGrand Rapids City Commissioner and veteran community member Jim Talen comments: “A common rejection response is ‘you’re just over-qualified,’ or ‘you’ll get bored with this job.’ A lot of us have learned to understand that really means something like ‘you’re too old’ or ‘we’d really like someone younger who might stick around for longer.’ It happens a lot.”

Hidden caregivers and the post-retirement years

Sue Davidson, executive director of downtown’s Bethlehem Lutheran Intergenerational Center, notes that the 55+ demographic really includes two generations in one: the retirees in their 50s, 60s, and 70s, and the parents they often care for who are in their 70s, 80s, and 90s.

“One of the things that’s missing in our community is conversations about the caregivers,” Davidson says.

“They need permission,” says Bethlehem Lutheran’s Pastor Jay Schrimpf. “Permission to have respite from giving care to their elderly spouse or parents. They carry the weight of multiple generations. It used to be the sandwich generation, but now it’s a multi-layered sandwich.”

For adult children, taking care of one’s parents often implies enormous emotional responsibility—a responsibility they typically face alone. “The bigger obstacle,” says Davidson, “is the sense that ‘no one can care for them like I do,’ like it’s wrong to leave them in someone else’s care.”

“Our culture doesn’t give permission for those folks to seek help,” Schrimpf says, “and also those resources aren’t available.”

Meanwhile, the eldest among this community face the greatest risk of injury and suicide. According to the CDC, in 2014 suicide rates for ages 75+ were 20.4 (per 100K), compared to 16.25 in ages 65-74, and a US national average of 14.5. Data from the same year reveals that unintentional fall death rates in adults aged 65+ have increased 34 percent between 2005 and 2014. The CDC estimates that over 800,000 patients a year are hospitalized in the US due to a fall injury, totaling Medicare costs of over 31 billion in 2015.

Each of these elements—fall injuries, suicide rates, even low employment—can be traced back to a common source: a disconnection from community.

Wellness and community bring vitality

Prescriptive fitness programs seem to barely scratch the surface of the barriers that exist to maintaining connection to community as we age. Ginger observes:

“You can say to somebody who’s older, ‘well you really need to move…’ but what are those options, really? Walking around in a mall by themselves? Going to a gym where a guy is lifting weights next to them? None of that feels good. That community is so important.”

Judith Buchman spends time with children during a senior day program with Bethlehem Lutheran Intergenerational Center.

Senior day programs, as a preventive alternative to full-time foster care, have been gaining popularity in recent years, as evidenced by the availability of nearly $10M in funding for local programs such as Hope Network and SarahCare through the Kent County Senior Millage.

One of the newest models seeks to bridge the generational divide through the “intergenerational” model, which combines a preschool with a senior day program. Schrimpf and Davidson launched a version of this model last May with Bethlehem Lutheran Intergenerational Center.

The idea is primal in its simplicity: let the young ones learn from the older ones, which gives the older ones activity and purpose. “Your quality of life is greatly enhanced by being around other people,” says Davidson, “by being filled with joy.”

For those who haven’t yet reached the threshold to the older demographic, the key seems to lie in investing in one’s wellness—and in one’s community.

Valentine muses, “I love being older. I love the freedom, and the wisdom, and the knowledge. If I eat, and move, and rest well, then I don’t have to fall apart. I think a lot of times people feel powerless, like it’s gonna be terrible getting old. And it’s not. You can do things to make yourself feel good, and strong, as you age.”

Photography by Adam Bird of Bird+Bird Studio.

Diagrams courtesy of the CDC.
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