What reporting on aging in California taught me about being a better citizen
(Photo by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds via AFP/Getty Images)
“As people start to age they feel invisible, discarded, even,” said Priscilla Essert, during our phone interview in late March.
As former executive director of Vintage House Senior Center in Santa Rosa, Calif., she has worked with thousands of seniors. She has seen firsthand the challenges facing those who are aging in the Bay Area, and the one that looms the largest is isolation, she told me. We, as a society, have a tragic tendency of ignoring our elderly and aging — and my experience reporting on this issue made that clear to me as well.
For many, getting old feels like something in the distant future — or at least something they’d like to think of as distant. While in many countries elders are revered, in the United States aging is more often than not seen as a taboo, a sore subject, an unfortunate reality.
Our culture has long championed “independence,” broadcasting stories of “self-made successes” and “making it despite the odds.” The problem is that a society that places such a premium on independence doesn’t offer a lot of room for valuing collective responsibility and extending a hand to those that need more help and support to succeed. Seniors are one such group.
The reality is that seniors are struggling, and until recently, very little collective attention has been paid to those challenges or the impacts they are having on the aging population. Seniors are struggling to afford their basic needs, with many older adults lacking any retirement savings. That’s particularly true for seniors of color, for whom retirement savings programs were much less likely to be available. They are facing increased health care costs, challenges accessing transportation, higher risk during emergency situations, and are often cut off from community and struggling with isolation.
I am a 24-year-old data journalist. I’m only a few years out of college, at the beginning of my career, with many years between me and the population I’m reporting on. So why do I care and, moreover, why have I dedicated my time and effort to giving attention to this topic?
Well, there are a few reasons. I care because of the challenges my grandparents faced as lifelong Bay Area residents, and the challenges faced by my mother and aunt when they were seeking care for them. I care because I worry about my parents as they move towards retirement age in a state that is becoming more and more expensive every year. I care because I believe that seniors, like every other population group, are important and worthy and have value in our society that has gone unrecognized for far too long. I care because if some members of our communities are hurting, we are all impacted — whether we as individuals acknowledge it or not.
I also care because if we don’t tackle these problems now, they aren’t just going to go away on their own. As I learned, they are going to get worse.
In 2022, people over the age of 65 make up 17% of the state population. Over the next 30 years, that proportion is set to increase to 26%. According to the California Elder Index, nearly 50% of single elders in California are unable to afford the basic cost of living. Seniors of color are twice as likely to fall below the poverty line, and are set to account for over half of California’s seniors by 2035. Seniors are frequently isolated, face staggering rates of abuse, lack access to crucial resources, and struggle to find care, community, and connection in a society that frequently turns a blind eye to their plight.
In light of these issues, California has recently developed a master plan on aging in an effort to tackle some of these challenges. And that’s an important step — not only because it seeks to create a roadmap for improving the conditions for seniors in California, but also because it brings awareness to these issues and acknowledges them head-on. It is too early to say how much of the master plan will become reality in California. Many of its initiatives are just getting started, and the data dashboard created to track the plan’s progress has only been updated sporadically. Funding for the ambitious programs is also in question.
It is clear, though, that California has a lot of work to do and the master plan for aging at least provides a framework for the state. However, becoming “the most age- and disability-friendly state in the nation,” as the master plan aims, will require more than legislature and government action.
It will require a cultural shift whereby the younger population charged with caring for seniors sees the value in supporting one another and seeking better community for everyone, even if those changes won’t impact them directly — at least not right now.
“Addressing these issues isn’t just for seniors — it benefits you and everyone you know,” Priscilla Essert said. “We’re all in this together and we’re all getting older every single second of every single day. I think people of all ages need to be paying attention to this.”
Through my coverage of the aging population in California, I learned many lessons on how to work with data, conduct interviews, and be a better journalist. But in the end, the most important lessons I have learned pursuing this topic are less to do with being a good journalist, or a good data scientist; they are more to do with being a good citizen.
Here are a few of those lessons:
Do your best to pay attention to and care about things and people beyond yourself.
It is easy to get caught in our own loops and patterns and miss what may lie just beyond our immediate circumstances. Broadening our vision to see beyond ourselves is immensely valuable and can create opportunities to build empathy, connect with others, and create meaningful change.
Everyone has a way to contribute — take time to appreciate the contributions of others, and work to find a way that you can give back. The best progress is that which we accomplish together.
There are many ways that we can contribute to the betterment of our communities. Perhaps your contribution is providing coverage of an issue or a population that is going unnoticed or deserves more visibility. Perhaps it is seeking to create connections or provide resources for others. Or perhaps it is simply taking the time to reach out, be a good neighbor, and combat the isolation that leaves people out in the cold.
If something does not affect you personally now, that is no guarantee that it will not affect you eventually.
It is a mistake to think that injustice occurs in a vacuum. When a portion of our community is hurting, it impacts all of us. Community is a powerful thing, and communities are strongest when their members are cared for. Furthermore, injustices against one segment of the population do not tend to stop there. We must speak up and care for each other. To reference the famous poem by Martin Niemöller, it may be easy to turn a blind eye as long as you are not personally affected, but “then they came for me —and there was no one left to speak for me.”
There is a popular Chinese proverb that reads, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.” This is true of any problem.
Hindsight is 20/20 and it was difficult to look at the issues I’ve reported on related to aging and preparing for a shifting population without thinking that we should have taken action to resolve these problems a long time ago. It’s true that we should have, but the last thing we want is to have another 20 years go by and find ourselves looking back wishing we had taken action now. This is true of the challenges being faced by seniors, and it’s true of most other issues facing our communities as well. That’s why journalism is a public service and why I feel called to do this work.
When the hurdles facing us feel insurmountable, try to remember that some progress is better than none, and the best time to take action is now.