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Advocacy for Seniors: An Interview with Ruth Harriet Jacobs

Ronnie Friedland
Feb. 28, 2009

How to combat ageism and stand up for yourself.

Ruth Jacobs, an advocate for seniors and a senior herself, doesn't believe in politely sitting back and taking what one is dished.

This kind but feisty woman has written books with titles such as Be an Outrageous Older Woman: A R.A.S.P. (Remarkable, Aging Smart Person) and ABCs of Aging: Humorous helpful advice for older men and women -- part of an effort to pass along her hard-earned wisdom to others.

What advice does Jacobs want to convey?

Don't Let Authority Figures Demean You!

It's so important for elders, Jacobs says, to speak out and not let themselves be treated as insignificant, inferior, or childlike.

  • If a doctor, or other authority figure, demeans you, she suggests reminding them they you are competent and don't need to be treated like a child.
  • And when you have an important doctor's appointment, it's often helpful to bring someone along to support you and to be able to remind you of what is said. This person could be a relative, friend, or professional advocate -- a service provided by volunteer retired doctors in the Boston area.

Find?A Doctor Who Is Sensitive to Your Needs

Years ago, when Jacob had recurring headaches, she was treated as if she were a "chronic complainer seeking attention." Eventually the cause of her complaint -- a large brain tumor -- was found, and Jacobs switched doctors to one who treated her with more respect and paid attention to what she said.

Jacobs has noticed that some doctors will actively help elders, recommending Medicare-covered services they could benefit from -- such as physical therapy, visiting nurses, or psychological counseling. Others, however, don't have the time or inclination to think about what would help the elder, and might refer her to a non-Medicare-covered provider when excellent covered ones are available. She recommends assessing what kind of provider your doctor is, and if he/she isn't the supportive kind, perhaps it is time to ask around for a referral to one who is.

Don't Be Afraid of New Technololgies

These new technologies can save your life! A LifeStation-type medical alert device -- which elders can wear around their necks, and which by merely pushing a button connects them to someone who can get them help -- saved Jacob's life when she had a blood clot in her lung. She pushed the bottom and an ambulance came in time. Many other devices can also make a tremendous difference in the quality and length of seniors' lives -- such as bracelets worn by people with Alzheimer's that emit a signal so that they can be located easily if they wander off, and motion detectors that enable family members to keep track of their elderly parent's movements -- and Jacobs suggests learning more about them.



Ageism Within and Outside of Ourselves

Too many people -- including those elders interact with and the elders themselves -- suffer from ageism, Jacobs says. By ageism she means not believing that elders have much to offer and not seeing them as entitled to much respect. To counter ageism within oneself, Jacobs advocates learning as much as you can about the resources available for elders.

Resources Helpful to Elders

  • Your local Agency on Aging -- The federal government provides a national network of social services for the elderly. Check with your eldercare locator or call HIDDEN for your local agency.
  • Senior centers -- These days senior centers offer stimulating courses and lectures, social interaction, meals, physicians and nurses who monitor your vital signs, and much more. And you don't have to limit yourself to your own town's senior center. If there is a better senior center in the next town, Jacobs points out that since they receive federal and state funding, these senior centers must welcome anyone, not just town residents.
  • Libraries -- Libraries often have lectures and discussion groups attended mostly by elders, as well as informational programs for elders, and they offer computers, social interaction and a place to go.
  • Universities, colleges and community colleges -- Today, colleges often have programs specifically geared to elders, or offer elders the option of auditing courses for no or minimal charges.
  • Senior newspapers -- Senior newspapers are often distributed to libraries and other public places at no charge and offer information about programs for seniors, along with advice for them.
  • OWL (Older Women's League) -- OWL is a national organization with local branches, which offers activities and information and provides a means for women to connect with and socialize with each other.
  • The Red Hat Society -- The Red Hat Society is a national organization with local chapters all over the country, each of which offers different activities depending on the interests of the members. This organization offers older woman a chance to get to know each other and have fun together. Too many widows, Jacobs says, are isolated, and organizations such as this offer them a chance to get out and enjoy themselves.
  • Gyms, Ys, Pools -- These resources offer both a way to keep your body fit and a place where you can encounter others on a regular basis, make connections, and lessen your isolation. They often have classes where you'll get to know the other participants, as well as lectures and elder fairs, and most often discounted memberships for seniors.
  • Support groups -- Support groups abound on each of the many different issues senior face, from bereavement to living with someone with Alzheimer's or Parkinson's. They offer seniors a way to connect with others in similar situations and help counter any isolation they may feel.
  • Volunteering -- Volunteering provides a great way for seniors to get out of the house and feel useful. In addition, many towns offer seniors who qualify financially the ability to volunteer in a town office and in return get their tax rate reduced. Call your local town to see if this benefit is offered there and if you qualify, or if there are any other volunteer programs for seniors that offer stipends for participating.

Knowledge is power, Jacobs says. The more you know, the more you can help yourself.

To find out more about Ruth Harriet Jacobs, visit her website.

Additional links

Area Agency on Aging: This government program provides a national network of social services. Go to their website or call HIDDEN for your local agency.

AARP: Membership organization for people age 50 and older; provides numerous benefits to members.

Ronnie Friedland is an editor at Care.com. She has co-edited three books on parenting and interfaith family life.

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