Developing leadership is vital to the aging community since the well-being of people at all life stages involves their interaction with groups—from family to government to the whole human community.
The field has grown concomitantly with the number of elders, a cohort made up of individuals each with diverse capacities and needs. Virtually all sectors of society are striving to accommodate this demographic change and its epidemiological influence. In this rich environment, people and institutions have been—and are—rising to alter the status quo.
What a privilege to have been asked to participate in this issue of Aging Today. It has afforded me the opportunity to take a (virtual) walk down memory lane in the company of so many special people.
Unfortunately, in our busy lives we can become preoccupied and neglect to step back to consider personal and societal successes and failures—as well as the key figures in our industry. In my personal journey, still underway, I have been privileged to learn from and engage with those mentioned below, as well as countless others—many friends and colleagues—as we move through a new and emerging human experience.
Both in the United States and across the globe, people are beginning to recognize and come to grips with a new reality— a Third Age—as a normal part of the life cycle with its inherent challenges, opportunities and even perils for all humankind.
Leading in Many Milieus
As a framework for this In Focus section of Aging Today on leadership we need to make a few distinctions. “Time” and “space-place” are important components in leadership. For the time element, we look to examples from the past, assess current activities and prepare for the future. Each period provides challenges, needs, opportunities and obstacles when leading. With passing time come complexity and a tendency to forget the past.
From a “space-place” perspective, we consider local communities, states and the nation as a whole. Leadership is rooted in different fields—government, community organization, institutional life, research and the media.
Leaders need three components to be successful: a time or place when action is needed, personal capacity that matches the “felt need” of a group and a readiness to risk success or failure. Some leaders will evolve because of a particular competence, for example microbiologist Leonard Hayflick in the biology of aging; others because of a specific societal need, such as Irving Wright, the founder of the American Foundation for Aging Research, or Robert Ball—the hero (in my judgment) of Social Security.
A “structural leader” is one who occupies a societally defined role such as that of public official
or institution head. Then there is achieved or earned leadership by competent leaders who inspire
people to do great things through skill and moral persuasiveness. Occasionally, structural leaders
have earned the acceptance of those in their domain; unfortunately this isn’t always the case.
A Look Back at Leadership
In 1951, President Harry Truman ordered the Federal Security Agency to convene a national conference that became the precursor to what are now the White House Conferences on Aging. In 1958, Congressman John E. Fogarty introduced legislation signed by President Eisenhower for such a conference to be held in 1961. This and subsequent conferences spurred the country to focus on the capacity and needs of elders, and marked the beginning of a movement that would change America’s consciousness and social institutions. It—and subsequent events—gave rise to new leaders in the field of aging.
From the private sector, people such as Ethel Percy Andrus, Ollie Randall and Gloria Cavanaugh were key in establishing national organizations that developed and nurtured many who became and are leaders in aging organizations. Michael Harrington exemplified the power of the media by his book, The Other America (MacMillan, 1962), which greatly influenced President John F. Kennedy’s vision of America, as well as Lyndon Johnson’s: it fell to Johnson to turn the dream into policy by orchestrating the passage of Medicare, Medicaid and the Older American’s Act plus other programs.
Nelson Hale Cruikshank came out of the labor movement to be a significant actor in the passage of Medicare and a leader in aging. He chaired the Federal Council on Aging and was President Jimmy Carter’s chief advisor on aging.
No account of the recent history of aging would be complete without mention of these giants in the field, each of whom exercised leadership in distinctly different ways: Arthur Flemming, Robert Butler, Claude Pepper and Maggie Kuhn.
Flemming, though occupying various non-governmental posts, was a “lifer” in the federal government and, for the latter part of his public life, an unparalleled leader in aging. A lifelong Republican, he defied labels and served in every administration through four decades.
Not everyone introduces a word into common parlance, as Bob Butler did when he coined the term “ageism.” Butler was the founding head of the National Institute on Aging and the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Why Survive? Being Old in America (Harper & Row, 1975). His legacy lives on with his International Longevity Center now housed at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.
Politician Claude Pepper used his bully pulpit, the House Select Committee on Aging. Coming back from a bruising and ugly defeat in a 1950 attempt to retain his Senate seat, he became a champion for older people, personifying resiliency.
Another leader who came into her own was Maggie Kuhn, founder of the Gray Panthers. Kuhn multiplied her effectiveness by rallying older women to exercise leadership in societal decisions at all levels.
Today, gerontologist, psychologist and author Ken Dychtwald is a media maven whose skills and messaging have been manifest both in the aging community and the broader society for years.
This litany of leaders excludes the thousands of persons who not only have implemented programs and acted as community organizers in states and local communities, but who also illustrate common traits of leadership: commitment, understanding of issues, the ability to communicate and to personify that for which they advocate.
A New Leadership Challenge
In earlier days, when the fledgling field of aging was relatively small and focused, there were pressing issues needing special attention; this need created opportunities for individuals to move into leadership positions on the national level. The field was emerging as the elder population was growing, along with an awareness of the implications of this demographic dynamic. Early policy advocacy was focused on the poor, those discriminated against and those without access to healthcare. Public policy initiatives reflected these realities.
New leadership and an augmented agenda are vitally necessary today as the field and older persons are confronting many daunting realities; the economy, a polarized political process, the advent of the baby boomers and challenges to the basic programs undergirding the well-being and security of those in the “Third Age.”
Ironically, our success can be our stumbling block. As services proliferate for elders, whether affluent, poor or in between, their proponents seek support in public and private sectors. The field becomes more diffuse, often pitting advocates and agendas against one another.
At the local level, agencies and activities spawned by “silo-ed” federal programs must do more with less. We need a new spirit of cooperativeness and creativity. Each federal program has its unique legislative history, advocates and bureaucracy. The HUD programs have their regulations, as do those generated by the Older American’s Act.
Though Medicare and Medicaid are “health-related,” it’s incredibly difficult to integrate them, even for the dually eligible. All four federal programs are sources of support for frail elders, yet their differing eligibility criteria, administrative structures (local, national, and often, state) and program guidelines make it tough at the local level to coordinate them. In these challenging times, there is no substitute for local goodwill and creativity.
At all levels we need a greater understanding of today’s realities and commitment to solidarity, reciprocity and promotion of the common good. We are in need of leaders with broad vision, good skills and big hearts.
Monsignor Charles Fahey is the Marie Ward Doty Professor of Aging Studies (emeritus) at Fordham University, New York City.
Editor’s Note: This article appears in the September/October 2012, issue of Aging Today, ASA’s bi-monthly newspaper covering issues in aging research, practice and policy nationwide. ASA members receive Aging Today as a member benefit; non-members may purchase subscriptions at our online store.
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