A comprehensive private-public campaign reaching out to Berkshire seniors is relaunching its effort, which is both a welcome and realistic acknowledgement of facts on the ground (Eagle, April 3). The Berkshires' median age of residents is 44, beating the national figure by a healthy margin of eight years as well as making it one of the oldest populations in Massachusetts. The segment of the Berkshires population that is over 65 already outnumbers those under 18.
An alliance between the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission and the state Executive Office of Elder Affairs is behind the renewed effort, titled "Age Friendly Berkshires," which seeks to enhance integration of seniors into the vibrant life of the community in large and small ways while simultaneously giving their lives more meaning. As Laura Kitross, the BRPC's project manager for the initiative told The Eagle, "It really works for the rest of us in between," meaning that improved quality of life for seniors benefits residents of all ages.
In Asian societies, seniors are respected for their wisdom, and in the culture of extended families are given important age-specific roles to play that preserve their dignity, involvement and sense of usefulness. America, on the other hand, has a tradition of warehousing its elderly or otherwise segregating them out of the dynamism of daily life. (See top letter this page.) Sadly, some are even stigmatized. Age Friendly Berkshires, in an acknowledgment that seniors form such a significant part of Berkshires life, recognizes that they have much to offer to their communities.
The scope of the program is broad, underscoring that a senior's life is just as complex and has as many requirements for a sense of well-being as any member of society. Specific aspects of the campaign include finding job opportunities, promoting civic engagement, strengthening community support and health services, finding housing, making outdoor spaces and public buildings more user-friendly, promoting respect and social inclusion and providing transportation. The overarching philosophy is to help seniors be useful contributors to society, and to combat the social isolation that often surrounds them.
Furthermore, seniors' emotional well-being has a direct impact on physical health. The fact that the project was initially kick-started by a $180,000 grant from the Tufts Health Plan Foundation — a grant that was renewed last year, enabling the initiative's renewal — is solid confirmation of that connection.
The key to the success of such a plan is that it not stop at raising adequate funds or finding enough willing volunteers and allies — it's the steady and growing impact such a program can have on general attitudes toward aging and the aged held by members of a society that places such a high premium on youthfulness and vigor. Those so-called virtues are transitory and unearned; eventually, everyone gets old through no fault of their own, and those who have done so have gained a perspective from their wealth of experience that can be valuable to those just getting started.
"Age Friendly Berkshires" is not merely a program to help the elderly; it's an exhortation to the Berkshires community to embrace and care for all its residents regardless of their years. Those who wish to become involved in this worthy effort are encouraged to attend the kickoff event at 8:30 p.m. on April 17 at the Berkshire Hills Country Club, 500 Benedict Road in Pittsfield. Sooner or later, everyone — no matter how young they may be at the moment — stands to benefit.