Scaling to Grandma

When I was a little girl, I had the great fortune to have three grandparents who were very engaged and active members of our family. As a very young child, my grandparents took on near mythic proportions. They seemed to me to be quite ancient (and in fact, two of them lived to be 100 years old or more), to have the answer to every important question, and to be able to demonstrate unlimited comfort at all the right moments, or terrifying authority, as the situation dictated.

It struck me as I grew up that their roles at the head of our family were pivotal and I learned many lessons about our family’s history, values, and customs because of the great care and attention my grandparents paid to keeping our family close knit and strong.

My grandparents have been gone now for many years, but I continue to treasure those lessons learned and strive to pass our family’s traditions on to my own children.

I found myself thinking about this a few weeks ago when I had the honor of attending my first meeting as a member of the Forum on Aging, Disability and Independence of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. This Forum is a gathering of experts and stakeholders dedicated to improving the quality of life for elder Americans, and to finding, through the intersection of age and disability, the best path forward to enduring productive lives across issues that affect our aging population and Americans living with the challenges of disability.

I was immediately struck by the passion these practitioners, thought leaders, experts, stakeholders, brought to their mission of directing research towards the intersection of disability and aging. This intersection is important to recognize. Census data from 2008–2012 showed there were 15.7 million people aged 65 and over in the United States that reported having one or more disabilities. As the majority of the baby boom generation, veterans, people with disabilities who now live longer thanks to modern science continue to age, it is reasonable to expect that number to rise exponentially.

What most inspired me, however, was the underlying vision of true engagement with seniors, and the incredible power and value they bring as the result of their lived experiences. I began to think — What if we could somehow bring that incredible experience I had, growing up close to my grandparents, into modern scale? What if we used social media, modern technology, and the globalization of communities, not only to archive the wisdom of our elders, but to put it to other productive uses?

Clearly, many others share this idea, as there are many inter-generational organizations and programs throughout the United States, many of which stimulate engagement through faith organizations, residential community groups, book clubs and more. This can be as simple as holding a “take a grandparent to school” afternoon, a seniors residential community opening its doors for a holiday gathering, or a periodic community festivity that reaches out to older Americans.

Our communities have a tremendous resource of broad expertise that isn’t being fully utilized. Seniors have their own culture living right alongside us and represent a group that often has the time to share their wealth of wisdom! So how do we start to build bridges to scale and adequately engage older Americans?

For me, this seems to be the next best and possibly one of the greatest uses for modern technology. We know that modern social media is attracting baby boomers as one of their largest growing consumers. We understand that the wonders of technology can provide access to global communities, provided that universal design includes older Americans and those with disabilities. This is a unique moment where we have the tools to analyze our communities and see where Americans with time, resources and the desire to engage can add value to our towns and cities. Also, this interaction can provide meaningful and often, critical social engagement for the aging population.

So I say, Scale to Grandma! We need everyone at at all points along our cultural lifelines to benefit from the tremendous knowledge that has accumulated from the experiences of those who live around us. To make this happen, we should insist on inclusive and universal design for modern conveniences — for example, transportation network companies (TNC), like “Go, Go Grandparent” that operates across the U.S., offer alternatives for seniors who are not technology savvy, and make it easier for seniors to get around independently. We should expand the scope of social media groups and encourage interactions between generations so that these lived lessons can be shared by all — after all, it was a grandmother’s plea on Facebook that launched the Women’s March. We should demand inclusivity at our cultural and social events, which means making room for scooters, wheelchairs, and assistive mobility, as well as sensory (audio and visual) technologies to make things like concerts, town hall meetings, shopping, and restaurants a welcome experience for people of all age and ability. As with all elements of the ‘inclusion revolution,’ scaling to Grandma and Grandpa opens new pathways to make life better for us all!

I was very lucky and know from experience that grandparents are magical. Seniors have so much to teach us, and in turn, take great enjoyment from their engagement. This may be the newest source of millennial energy yet! As an ‘emerging’ older American myself, I, for one, can’t wait to be asked, included, and engaged. Let’s be sure that seniors age with us, and are given the opportunity to be part of, guide, and experience the wonders of the modern community.




Disability rights advocate; two term appointee by President Obama to National Council on Disability; Senior Policy Advisor to HFA; wife, mom, SF resident!

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Janni Lehrer-Stein

Janni Lehrer-Stein

Disability rights advocate; two term appointee by President Obama to National Council on Disability; Senior Policy Advisor to HFA; wife, mom, SF resident!

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