The key in the coming years, Kaye says, is to develop the infrastructure that will support older adults as they seek to remain productive, no matter what their definition of productivity is. To do that, social workers will need to find new ways to interact with the new aged outside of the conventional arenas. While they still will need to work to meet the needs of older adults who struggle with the infirmities of aging, they also will need to reach the new aged in different venues.
For Kaye, that means social workers will need to work more closely with community officials, employers, career counselors, financial planners, wellness promotion staff, lifelong learning administrators, volunteer activity planners and others who interact with active seniors.
The process will require that a community or region first conduct a “resource and needs assessment’’ to accurately identify the needs of its aging citizens, such as transportation, healthcare, and housing; and the potential community resources available to meet those needs, including the expertise and capacity that elders themselves can offer.
“You have to understand the needs and appreciate the resources that exist that can be brought to bear,’’ Kaye says. “Any town that can do that will find untapped resources. It doesn’t have to always require taxpayer dollars or drain precious public resources.”
Some communities in Maine already have begun the process, according to Kaye. The town of Bucksport, for example, has an active senior advisory committee that focuses on the needs and concerns of the older population. Brunswick, he says, has won recognition as one of the best small communities to retire in because it has created an environment that is “age friendly,’’ making it easier for older residents to get around.
UMaine already is working to better prepare social work students to interact with the new aged generation, Kaye says. Through the Hartford Partnership Program for Aging Education, UMaine’s School of Social Work is training more students to work with older adults, using a specialized field education model. Many of their social work courses now include content on aging. And the UMaine students also get a new perspective through involvement in Center on Aging programs.
Through the years, the center has developed programs that provide opportunities for older adults to remain productive and involved in their communities, including the Senior College program, Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, and the Encore Leadership Corps (ENCorps). Programs like these provide an opportunity to tap the abilities and enthusiasm of older adults in ways that keep them engaged in and contributing to their communities. With the burgeoning older population, more and varied programs like this will be needed in the future, according to Kaye.
“We have yet to realize the full potential of older adults,’’ Kaye says. “We have a great opportunity to take advantage of the skills, wisdom and capabilities elders have. It will be the greatest waste of untapped resources in history if we fail to do that.’’