Statement Of James M. McCrea
Environmental Protection Agency
Aging Initiative Public Listening Session
April 23, 2003
James M. McCrea
University Center for Social and Urban Research
University of Pittsburgh
University Center for Social and Urban Research
University of Pittsburgh
I'd like to thank the Environmental Protection Agency and their co-sponsors the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health and Allegheny County Area Agency on Aging for the opportunity to speak to you today.
The mission of Generations Together, an Intergenerational Studies Program at the University of Pittsburgh is to connect the young and old through education, research, and public service activities that strengthen communities. For almost 25 years we have developed innovative intergenerational programs that address the needs of children, youth, and older adults, who often represent the most vulnerable segments of our population. Our work has shown that when members of two different generations come together a special synergy is created based on the notion that caring for each other is both natural and appropriate. However, too often, services and opportunities to serve, are age-segregated, when we ought to consider the reciprocal benefits that can occur when young and old team up to serve each other or others. In these days of budget challenges it is even more important to use an intergenerational approach to address our nation's problems including environmental issues that affect aging, by empowering our current and future older populations to address these issues. In the words of Margaret Mead, International Chairman of the first Earth Day in 1978 "the quality of a nation is reflected in the way it recognizes that its strength lies in its ability to integrate the wisdom of its elders with the spirit of its children and youth."
Education and Research
Environmental conditions present challenges in addressing the needs of the fastest growing segment of the population, those 85 years old and older. This population includes some of the frailest members of our society and those most susceptible to environmental hazards. First, in the area of educational priorities related to environmental hazards that threaten the health of older persons, more needs to be done to educate both the young and old who are particularly at-risk to health problems related to ground-level ozone. The media does a important job of alerting the public to red days when ozone levels are high. However, elderly are advised to stay indoors on such days, potentially conflicting with necessary trips to the doctors, grocery store or pharmacy. Research is needed to determine the number of older adults that go out in spite of the alert and what the impact of this is?
Second, southwestern Pennsylvania, rich in both the numbers of older adults and in valuable coal reserves, presents a unique environmental hazard when these two are combined. Many older adults, primed to live out their retirements in homes that they have worked for all of their lives, are now faced with the psychological and emotional upheaval resulting from long-wall mining. Facing the loss of their homes and water supplies, these older adults must often wait as long as two years for the subsidence to end and for negotiations with slick mining companies to be resolved. After financial settlements are finalized, they often have to take up temporary residence while their homes are rebuilt or repaired, only to find that their tax assessments have increased as a result of the improvements. Many of these older adults are on fixed incomes and the increased taxes puts a strain on their quality of life. Research is needed on the impact of long-wall mining on older adults' ability to maintain their standard of living, and the toll this practice takes on their psychological and emotional health.
Intergenerational approaches to reducing environmental hazards
In spite of these challenges, the aging population also presents opportunities in the availability of the large numbers of high-functioning older adults who can have a positive impact on the environment. This impact is already evident in programs such the Pennsylvania Senior Environment Corps whose members are helping to preserve and enhance the quality of the environment for themselves and future generations. Several opportunities exist to apply an intergenerational lens to the National Agenda for Aging and the Environment by utilizing the strengths of both young and old to enhance the environment of older persons and their health. For example, intergenerational programs consisting of high school or college age students could educate isolated elderly about the harmful effects of ozone and offer assistance on Action days. Such an intergenerational approach adds value because of the reciprocal benefits that are incurred by the both the young and the old. Intergenerational programs enable a sharing of skills, knowledge and experience between the young and the old; help fill the void in young and old person's lives caused by disconnectedness; enable students to gain an historical perspective that helps confirm their place in society; enable students to learn about survival and adaptation from older adults who are frail and at risk yet who still want to be involved; and enable students to learn about the biology, sociology, psychology, and economics of growing old while gaining a greater understanding of their own aging.
Programs that engage older adults as volunteer mentors to the younger generations, can enable them to serve as models of what it means to be an engaged citizen. Often referred to as the World War II generation, they are more active in more organizations than younger people, attend church more often, vote more regularly, both read and watch the news more frequently, are less misanthropic and more philanthropic, are more interested in politics, work on more community projects, and volunteer more. Through intergenerational programs, retired teachers, engineers, and other scientists can educate and inform young people about environmental hazards and engage them in meaningful solutions, while being models of good practice.
Volunteer programs, however, should not be the only solutions considered. Thousands of low income older adults participate in paid community service programs such as Senior Service America, Inc., Americorps, and others. These programs offer opportunities for older adults to supplement their income by providing meaningful service to their communities. When combined with intergenerational service-learning programs, such as when college students team with older adults to tackle a community issue, or to educate younger generations, the resulting benefits include increased learning for the students, job skills for both, productive activities for the older adults, and improved conditions for the community and environment. Generations Together has already begun to identify model intergenerational environmental projects in conjunction with Senior Service America that can have positive impacts on the participants and the environment. We hope the EPA's Aging Initiative will consider the potential benefits that such collaborations can have on the environment and the health of all generations.
In conclusion, the Aging Initiative has tremendous potential to benefit the aging population and environment but not at the exclusion of the generations that will reap the benefits of this work. I encourage the EPA to approach the issues and solutions using an intergenerational lens so that a commitment to the environment of the future can be instilled in the young of today. Thank you again for the chance to speak today and I welcome the opportunity to continue dialog in the future. I would be pleased to provide additional information relative to these issues upon request.