May 10, 2022

Older Americans Month: A Call for Celebration—and Action

BY Katie Smith Sloan

When Kane Tanaka passed away a few weeks ago, I viewed the news as a cause for celebration—a celebration of aging.

Tanaka was the oldest person in the world when she died at age 119 on April 19. Living in a nursing home in the Japanese city of Fukuoka, she was a national role model for those who want to thrive in their later years, rather than simply endure. Visitors found her “not just alert, but vivacious and irrepressibly funny,” according to The New York Times.

When asked by reporters to identify the secret to living so long, Tanaka replied, “Being myself.” When quizzed about her happiest moment, she exclaimed, “Now!”

Not that her life was easy. Tanaka lived through two world wars, the 1918 flu epidemic, and the coronavirus pandemic. Over the course of her 12 decades, she was treated for paratyphoid, pancreatic cancer, and colon cancer. She buried her husband and all four of her children.

Despite these challenges, Tanaka continued to enjoy life’s simple pleasures, including her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, chocolate, and board games—which she hated to lose. She thrived with the aid of family members, her community, and the infrastructure of services and supports that helped her remain active and engaged until the very end of her life.

I’ve been thinking of Tanaka a lot lately, as we celebrate Older Americans Month in the United States. To my mind, this month’s theme—Age My Wayaptly describes the kind of life Kane Tanaka led, and the kind of life we want for ourselves and our loved ones as we age.

Simply wishing for that life won’t make it a reality, of course. Instead, we need creative strategies, concrete action, and plain hard work to make sure that we—and all Americans—can “age my way.” That’s why LeadingAge is marking Older Americans Month by shining a light on two major barriers keeping many older Americans from fulfilling that aspiration.

The first barrier to “aging my way” is lack of awareness. Many older adults and their families simply are unaware of the breadth of available services that can help them age well—from extra help around the house to communities offering specialized services.

LeadingAge is addressing this challenge through Keep Leading Life, a new public awareness campaign we developed as part of the Opening Doors to Aging Services initiative. Keep Leading Life shares some very good news: many older adults seeking support to “age my way” have more quality choices than they may realize.

The second barrier to “aging my way” is lack of access. Not enough older adults enjoy consistent access to the quality care and affordable housing that they and their families deserve—due to decades of underfunding and bad policy choices by elected leaders.

LeadingAge is addressing this challenge by advocating aggressively for laws and policies that will expand access to care, support, and affordable housing for older adults and their family members, starting with an all-government approach to recruiting, training, and fairly compensating our professional caregivers.

LeadingAge is doing what we can to move both initiatives forward, but we can’t do it alone. That’s where you come in.

During this Older Americans Month, I’m asking you to participate in the Keep Leading Life campaign by using our turnkey member resources to spread the good news about aging services through local print, radio, television, social media, and other communication platforms.

During this Older Americans Month, I’m also asking you to use our Advocacy Action Center to let your legislative representatives know that you support laws and policies to expand access to care, support, and affordable housing for older adults.

Older Americans Month 2022 is the ideal moment for LeadingAge members to speak with one voice so older Americans can truly “age my way.”

But don’t do it for me or even for LeadingAge. Do it in memory of Kane Tanaka, who taught us how to “age my way,” and whose life story should inspire us to help others do the same.