Cody Martinez distributing food
Sycuan Chairman Cody J. Martinez helps distribute food at Serving Seniors. Courtesy of the organization

In May, the United States recognizes Older Americans Month. It celebrates older Americans and their contributions to society’s accomplishments, while also fostering the connection and engagement across generations to build strong, resilient communities.

Older Americans Month also highlights our responsibility to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to live a fulfilling life, with dignity and purpose. This is our mission on behalf of San Diego County’s low-income and homeless seniors at Serving Seniors every day.

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One way we can all improve seniors’ lives is to recognize and combat ageism, actively promote a positive depiction of aging, and ensure our communities are built upon age-friendly public policies.

Aging policy affects all of us. You may not see an older person in the mirror today, but if you’re fortunate to live long enough, you will. Watching popular culture, I’m dismayed to see glaring stereotypes in the way older adults are depicted: frail, dependent, senile, unfamiliar with technology and unable to keep pace with today’s modern world — disposable.

Ageist tropes and jokes do serious damage and directly affect the wellbeing of older adults. Research by Yale University social psychologist Becca Levy has shown exposure to ageist ideas can have ill-health effects for older adults, even impacting their longevity. It can start as early as age 40.

Where can we find positive depictions of aging and cultural inclusion of older adults? Fortunately, several cultures treat their elders differently. In a study led by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, Native American culture stands out as one example of a culture far more inclusive of older generations.

In Native American culture, elders are respected for their wisdom, knowledge, and experience. Elders, especially women, assume significant roles as teachers and caretakers of younger generations.

This isn’t a surprise to us at Serving Seniors. The Sycuan Band of Kumeyaay Nation has been providing partnership support for 20 years in every aspect of our programs including nutrition, housing, supportive services and activities. Sycuan is a major contributor to our popular “Senior Idol” competition, a favorite pre-pandemic activity for participants and spectators alike.

Sycuan Chairman Cody J. Martinez shared his perspective while helping distribute meals from our Gary and Mary West Serving Seniors Wellness Center recently alongside other Sycuan volunteers.

“We’re just happy to be here to support the Wellness Center here, because elders are such an important part of Native and Kumeyaay society,” said Martinez. “Even more, so they continue to remind us we’re in a fortunate position to be able to give, and it wasn’t always so.

“Our elder population is so important because the culture is the fabric of our society and our identity,” explained Martinez. “The elders as we refer to them in our tribe have so much retained knowledge. The oral history is very strong in the Native American community. They teach the community from babies to adults.

“I’m constantly learning more about history, getting corrected about history, and talk about our cultural aspects and what it truly means to be Kumeyaay,” added Martinez.

Martinez credits the tribe’s elders for the prosperity and generosity it is able to share as a lesson about inclusion across generations with the greater San Diego community.

“The sense of serving others comes from my maternal grandmother. It’s a matriarchal kind of society because of their knowledge and because of the effort they put in when there was not much economic growth on the reservation. In Sycuan’s case, the elder women kept the tribe alive in some respects, by leaving the reservation to work to earn a living for their families.

“The elders in our community have always led by example,” said Martinez. “We continue to put them front and center. Don’t forget where you came from. Don’t forget the generations that came before. I think all Americans and all members of society should take time to reflect on those people who came before us.

“We hope our partnership with Serving Seniors inspires others to also support their mission, whether that’s through donations, volunteer opportunities or advocacy,” added Martinez. “If we all come together as a community, we can help solve many of the problems our older population faces, so they can get the resources they need to help them thrive and lead happy and fulfilling lives.”

At Serving Seniors we believe there is more we must do to ensure older Americans can live and age with dignity. We are committed to ensuring older Americans can easily access appropriate services they need to stay safe and healthy as they age. During Older Americans Month we can honor our elders and their continued contributions by committing to learning from them and supporting their future.

The good news is that we can fight ageism, just like we do with any other form of discrimination. By rejecting stereotypes and advocating on behalf of seniors, we can all help create an age-friendly community helping older adults thrive while reducing the financial strain on the community as a whole.

If we can’t offer any other motivation, consider this: if you’re fortunate, you’ll be an Older American someday. What you do to combat ageism now will lay the foundation for the way you are treated tomorrow. Will it be respect and inclusion, or outdated attitudes?

Paul Downey is CEO of Serving Seniors, a San Diego-based nonprofit that helps seniors in poverty live healthy and fulfilling lives.